Degree vs. Experience: Which one Truly Benefits Job Seekers?

That's not a valid work email account. Please enter your work email (e.g.
Please enter your work email

Girl with many question marks above head It’s an age old debate: having a degree or certain level of education versus having experience. Which is more beneficial to an employer in the long run?

I’ve heard cases where many employers will look at a candidate with a degree behind his/her name before considering another candidate with no degree, yet ample work experience in the field.

An example?

My mother is a special education teacher and she has 3-4 teacher’s aides every year. In her district, a job seeker looking to fulfill an aide position who has a minimum of 60 college credit hours will be more likely to get the job (even if the person has never worked in the classroom setting a day of his/her life) versus a job seeker who doesn’t have a degree but has years of experience. Last year when looking to hire a new aide, the school offered the position to someone with just college courses and no classroom/children experience over a woman who didn’t have a degree but had worked with children for six years.

And not only are the chances of being hired with “educational experience” vs. “real-world experience” greater, aides with college credits make 25-30 percent more than those without college credit.

So, to her school/district, education (even if it’s not a full degree) trumps experience. Yet, I know of a different scenario where experience ruled out over education.

My cousin had always wanted to go to law school, yet after receiving her bachelor’s, she ended up marrying and starting a family. Post grad, she worked at a law firm for five years, making excellent money and quickly working her way up to a managerial position. Eventually she left the firm, attended law school, is now preparing to take the bar exam and has many law firms interested in her. Why?

It’s not because she is a recent law school graduate (May 2013 to be exact), but that these firms  see the five years she worked at a law office (starting at just age 23) and how quickly she worked her way up to become  a manager. (The great recommendations from the firm don’t hurt either).

I’m sure many people have many different stories for both sides. But my opinion, and many may disagree, is that experience beats out education any day.

Look at my perspective: As a millennial, I witnessed countless students in my classes who did the bare minimum (and even cheated) to get by. Oh sure, they graduated and now have degrees, but what these students actually learned and can use to be an asset to an employer is hardly much at all.

I had the opportunity to work at seven internships throughout my collegiate career and what each one taught me is that there’s a huge difference between your professor explaining a concept and quizzing your knowledge on it versus you actually using certain skills in the real world.

My degree is in journalism and my school prepared us very well for the field: news writing classes, strict deadlines, strict adherence to AP style guidelines (if you misspelled a proper name you automatically failed), on-the-field assignments. I mean we did it all, and it was great and very helpful. But, there was still a major difference between how the school prepared us for a situation and how one actually handles a situation.

Getting a degree may be practice for the game, but it is not the game. Sometimes, no matter how much you’ve studied, or how many tests you passed, or how many degrees you’ve accumulated, there’s still a major difference when it comes to actually working in a field. A lot of things about the job you have to (and will) learn on the job. Experience gives you that opportunity.

Now, I’m not saying degrees are not helpful, sure they are. But experience is key. Look at it like this: If your car suddenly broke down on the side of the road and you had two options—a person who went to school for mechanics yet has never actually worked on a real car, or someone who didn’t go to school yet owns a shop and has been fixing cars for years—who would you choose?

By Shala Marks