Will More Education Earn You a Higher Salary? Not Necessarily, According to Experts

Times are changing, and so are job requirements.

The trajectory for career advancement used to seem pretty straightforward—at least, in theory. It was something like this: You go to school so you can get a job. Then, you go to more school so you can get a better (read: higher paying) job. Today's landscape is a little more complicated. On one hand, several reports over the past few years have stated that the educational requirements for jobs are rising, with more jobs requiring at least some postsecondary education. On the other hand, many major companies (like Apple, Google, and Tesla) have started dropping college degree requirements from their job descriptions, and studies have shown that as little as 27 percent of college graduates end up working in a field related to their major.

So if you're feeling stagnant in your career and you're hoping to level up and make some more money, you may be wondering if further education can get you where you want to be. The answer is multi-faceted, and depends on the individual. In general, however, many career experts agree that formal higher education no longer correlates as directly to greater career advancement.

Instead, future-of-work expert Steve Cadigan, LinkedIn's first chief HR officer and author of Workquake, believes these are the qualifications that outweigh degrees in today's work environment: learning agility and adaptability. "I believe that with the future of work, the value of someone in the future is increasingly going to be not what you know, but what you can learn," he says. He credits this largely to the rapid advancement of technology and all the ways that businesses (and, subsequently, workers) constantly need to adapt in order to keep up. "Those things are changing faster than ever before, and so how quickly you can learn new things is going to really differentiate you," he adds.

Brie Reynolds, career development manager at FlexJobs, agrees that the larger culture around what is needed to succeed in a career is shifting. "The new formula is no longer A plus B equals C, [meaning] what I have now, plus extra schooling, equals more money," she says. Instead, she says, the formula is "what you have now, plus what you're willing to do, what you're willing to take on in a creative way, and how many small things you're willing to do that will equal more money."

Cadigan isn't convinced that advanced education is an efficient way to learn these non-tangible skills of workplace adaptability. "If you're going to school to chase a skill, I think it's a bad choice right now," he says. "Because I don't think many universities are equipped with and dialed into what the businesses really need—and I know that because a lot of businesses don't really know what they need."

Not all industries, however, have been aligning with this "new formula" and lightening up on the education requirements. In fact, as mentioned above, many have been increasing them. In 2017, The Harvard Business Review coined this rising demand for a four-year college degree for jobs that previously did not require one "degree inflation." Among the jobs that were at the highest risk of degree inflation were sales representatives, bookkeeping, accounting and auditing clerks, secretaries, and administrative assistants.

So while it seems that the barriers to entering career fields are simultaneously being taken down in some areas and put up in others, there are still more options today for non-traditional trajectories. Keep reading for more on how you can advance in your career (or successfully transition to a new one) without pursuing another degree.

How to Earn More Without More School

Do your research

While a master's degree or more may be required for some positions, Reynolds says that there are a lot of jobs for which investing in those programs might not make sense, simply because it's not necessary. "I think one of the best things that people can do before they dive into a degree program of some kind is to spend a good amount of time researching the types of careers that they might be interested in," she says. So whether you're looking to enter a new career or level up into a management position in your current career, Reynolds recommends spending time looking into the job descriptions for that next job you have in mind and getting a clear idea of what requirements are actually necessary for you to achieve it.

If you're interested in pursuing a degree program simply because you want to learn more, and you can afford to do so, then there's nothing wrong with that. However, if it's an increased salary or a specific job you're after, make sure to confirm that the program is actually necessary before you invest your time and money.

Do informational interviews

A great way to learn more about the reality of job requirements (beyond the online job descriptions) is to conduct informational interviews with people in those roles. Look to people in your current company or a company you're hoping to work for and ask if you can take them out to coffee or hop on a quick video call to pick their brain. Reynolds recommends asking questions like: How did you get to this level? Did you find extra schooling was helpful? If so, what kind and how much?

"That can give you some real insights into people who have been exactly where you are and have gotten to where you want to go," she says. "How did they make that work? Was it education-based or was it something else? And even if it was education-based, what level are we talking? Was it a new degree? Was it a certification?"

Look into alternative education options

Not only can pursuing a new degree be time-consuming, but it can also be financially inaccessible. "It often feels like a big barrier for people because they're trying to get a better paying job and they can't necessarily invest a ton of money that they don't have to get to that next level," Reynolds says. Fortunately, though, there are several options that are often much less expensive that can still aide in career advancement.

One of those options, Reynolds says, is a certificate program or educational boot camp. These are typically three- to nine-month programs that focus on hyper-specialized education or training that is relevant to specific career fields. "Certificate programs have become very common for a huge variety of career fields," she says. "We see them in technology and marketing and accounting and education. There are all sorts of different certificates out there." Some are more useful than others, she notes, so it's important to do your research before moving forward.

Another option, Reynolds says, is to take a few online courses for a specific skill in place of pursuing a full degree program. "So let's say you're already a professional in finance, but you want to start leading people," she says. "There might be a shorter executive leadership type of course, that you could take through an online university...You don't have to necessarily even have the certificate at the end of your studies in order to make it effective and worth your time."

For a free or much more affordable option, she recommends looking into the wide network of online learning courses out there. This could range from the thousands of free Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), the courses available through LinkedIn Learning, or even YouTube tutorials.

Diversify your experiences

Cadigan believes that the idea that more schooling equals a more equipped worker is too narrow of a mindset. "When we think about the vitality of someone's future, we're confining it too narrowly when we think about just the classroom," he says. "I mean, we should think about your growth as a person, your growth as an individual." In Cadigan's mind, a degree (or multiple) isn't what makes a candidate stand out. Instead, he says, it's the many other lived experiences that contribute to how a future employee can communicate with and understand others, work well in groups, practice creative thinking, etc.

For Cadigan, he believes that the experiences that distinguish him most in the workplace are his time spent abroad. "When I was sitting on the executive staff of LinkedIn where we were growing a juggernaut company, not a single member of the executive team, except me, had ever lived in another country for any length of time," he says. "I've lived in Canada for four years, Singapore for two, and South Africa for five, and no one else had. And so when we're thinking about growing internationally, the depth of what they could offer was limited...[but my experiences abroad] served me incredibly well.

Of course, moving abroad or investing in a new creative pursuit may not be a realistic or accessible option for everyone. However, Cadigan believes it's worth widening the lens to see that the things that can eventually help you succeed in your career aren't always so career-specific. So if you've been hesitant to pursue a new skill—whether that's learning a new language or taking a dance class—because it doesn't seem directly productive to your job, he would say to go ahead and go for it. "It never hurts to invest in yourself," Cadigan says.

Apply anyway

Finally, don't let degree requirements in job descriptions keep you from applying to jobs that you know you could do. "We often talk about job descriptions as a wishlist that employers have, and so they are putting all of the things that their ideal candidate would possess on that job description, but the ideal candidate doesn't exist," Reynolds says. "So if you are reading a job description and you really figure that you can do this job, you have the experience, the skills...we say go ahead and apply, because they're not going to find that perfect person."

Even if you don't have the exact education requirements listed for the job, Reynolds says you can make up for it by tailoring your application materials to reflect how well suited you are for the job. "Take some time with a cover letter and tailor your resume to make sure that it's very clear how you have certain key skills and requirements that are needed in this job, then definitely apply," she says.

Part of tailoring your materials can include making clear the "equivalent experience" you have that can make up for a lack of a particular degree. "You can literally have the words, 'In lieu of bachelor's degree,' and that's where you could put if you were doing some independent study or taking some courses or whatever it might be," Reynolds says.

This can help show employers that you have related experience, even if it's not the exact requirement they asked for. Having the phrase 'in lieu of bachelor's degree,' can also help your application get through automated applicant tracking systems, Reynolds explains. "If [the systems] are set up to scan that people have a bachelor's degree on their resume, you've got that keyword on your resume," she says. "And so the applicant tracking system is going to be able to check that box for you and move you on to where you can actually explain to a human why you are so qualified for the job, even without that degree."

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