College Pedigree: Does It Matter?

Why the college admissions cheating scandal may resonate differently in today’s fast-shifting job environment.

It’s a scandal the media can’t get enough of: celebrity millionaire parents accused of trying to bribe or cheat their kids into some of the United States’ most prestigious schools. But, of all times, the scramble in general to get into top colleges is playing out against a whole new job market backdrop.

According to an FBI indictment released this week, these parents paid a combined $25 million over an eight-year period to the founder of a college exam prep company to help fake test scores, athletic achievements, and even ethnicities for the students to gain admission to Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, and other colleges.

The cheating scandal shows the lengths some parents will goincluding breaking multiple lawsto give their kids an advantage. Yet, in some experts’ views, the emphasis on getting into a top-tier school as a traditional path toward success is at odds with current hiring and economic trends. A global talent crunch, low unemployment, and rising wages, among other factors, are leading organizations to drop or relax education requirements. In fact, organizations are more willing than ever to pay from their own pockets to train employees for roles they need—investment in employee training grew 33% in 2017, reaching nearly $91 billion.

“In the long term, we may end up entering into an apprentice model, where the education is not very generalist but focused on technical schooling,” says Deepali Vyas, a senior client partner with Korn Ferry. Vyas, who is also the global co-head of Korn Ferry’s Fintech practice, says that many of her clients have shifted their recruiting practices to be less focused on degrees and more attuned to the experiences and skills of prospective talent to do the job.

Indeed, as technology continues to devour organizations and business models, the need for coders, data scientists, engineers, and other tech specialists is leading to an increase in vocational, technical, or other STEM-related education in lieu of a four-year degree. At last week’s workforce policy advisory board meeting at the White House, for instance, Apple CEO Tim Cook said that roughly 50% of the hires the company made in the US last year did not have a four-year degree.

This trend follows other movements that are more aligned with the future of work than the past. The nomad and gig economy, for instance, changed the way leaders look at job-hopping and short tenures. Entrepreneurism is now seen by many as a better return on investment than pursuing an MBA.

Still, while someday a college degree may not be needed to obtain high-level jobs, that isn’t the case today. Getting a degree still confers many advantages, not the least of which is a considerable difference in lifetime pay. A Georgetown study found that college graduates earn about $1 million more than those without a degree over the course of their working lives. “Even if you forfeit three or four years of earning now, there’s no calculation where going to college is not worth it,” says Benjamin Frost, a rewards specialist at Korn Ferry.

Access to mentors, sponsors, and others to build personal networks is another, albeit intangible, benefit of higher education. Moreover, one of the biggest criticisms of technical or vocational education is that it fails to develop the soft skills—such as communication, people management, emotional intelligence, and others—that are deemed critical to true career advancement.

“The scandal proves that there is still tremendous demand for college education,” says Kenneth Kring, senior client partner and co-managing director of the Global Education practice with Korn Ferry. The difference, Kring adds, is that now it isn’t the only path to a high-level job for both talent and employers.