Is a College Degree Obsolete?

A human capital strategy requires training and education By Michael E. Echols

Michael E. Echols is principal and founder of Human Capital LLC and author of “Your Future Is Calling.”
He can be reached at


t’s a broad question heard often these days: “Is a college degree worth it?” This question is most often asked with regard to individuals, but let’s examine it from the company perspective.

We can start with a brief look at the value proposition of training. Training is most often driven by investment in a company balance sheet asset of strategic importance to near-term financial performance. As an example, a commitment to software is not only a software investment, it is a substantial commitment to a strategic framework for capturing data and servicing customers. Employees not only are required to know what screens to access and what keys to hit and when, but they need to be proficient in the “how to” of the software. This all requires training dictated by the software’s architecture.

But embedded in the training are unforeseen education-related issues. Without the training, the full utility of the software investment will not be realized. The training is a necessary condition to get value out of the software investment, but it is not sufficient to realize the full potential of the investment and the related strategy. Problem solving and critical thinking are needed to reap the full strategic value.

One thing we can all agree on is that the world around us is changing at an amazing pace, and while it is reasonably safe to forecast some things a year out, it is virtually impossible to accurately forecast even the most rudimentary factors a decade from now. The point is that while today’s training may be adequate for the immediate future, it is virtually certain to be inadequate 10 or even five years from now.

Several implications can immediately be drawn. First, almost continuous reinvestment in training will be required. The only unknowns are how much will be required and how frequently retraining will be needed. The other, less obvious, implication is today’s training will not be able to fully respond to the unpredictable reality of tomorrow. What is certain to be required in the future is communication, problem-solving and critical-thinking skills.

Training fits into the decision space where context and critical structures are defined.

Without tumbling into the sinkhole of the education versus training debate, let it be said that both have their place. The education component can be better understood by focusing on the desirable skills of critical thinking and problem solving. While the context of trained skills is always known, the context of problem solving, by definition, is never known beforehand. Problem solving always requires the decision-maker to figure it out based on information and decision parameters previously unforeseen.

Training fits into the decision space where the context and critical structures are precisely defined — in the case of, by the code of the software. In the case of education, the thought patterns and skills required to think critically about new problems are homed in classes where compare-and-contrast tasks are debated in high-quality education settings.

If critical thinking and problem solving are the responsibility of colleges and universities, which I believe they are, the opportunity for improvement is certainly there. One need look no further than the groundbreaking research reported in the book “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. The research conclusions are, to say the least, disheartening. Nonetheless, when it comes to critical thinking and problem solving, it is education, not training, that we will be required to call upon as we go forward.

The one remaining contrast between training and education involves the question: “Who pays?” It is almost always the case that the employer pays for the training but less frequently pays for degree-related education. Why? Simply put, the training is necessary to fully capture the value of the balance sheet asset invested in by the company. Such is almost never the case with a degree seeking expenditures. Education never appears on the balance sheet.

Training is most often necessary but not sufficient to gain the full value of the human capital investment. For problem solving and critical thinking, a college education is the most desirable, even with all its imperfections. A complete human capital strategy requires both training and education.