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Education vs. Experience: Which Do Employers Value More?

The education vs. experience debate is in full swing. In today’s world, many wonder if a college degree is still a worthwhile investment, given the rise of several notable “self-made” entrepreneurs and thought leaders who skipped a secondary education altogether. While it may seem that this discussion is new—it’s not.

Charles Kilfoye, EdD and assistant vice president of Learner Success at Northeastern University, explains that this very debate is a decades-old conversation that educators, students, and employers have been having since the emergence of formal education.

“People have questioned the value of a college degree for decades, even though—statistically—a college degree is still one of the only investments you can make that guarantees a return on your investment. For instance, someone with a bachelor’s degree typically earn a million dollars more in their lifetime than a person with just a high school degree, and it’s a similar scenario for someone who holds a master’s degree.”

Work, Learn, or Both?

Considering the sizeable financial returns that come with a degree, does this mean formal education is more advantageous than traditional work experience programs, such as apprenticeships?  A recent survey of 50,000 employers reveals that there’s room—and a desire—for both.

When asked what attributes they hoped to see in new hires, companies ranked those that implied experience at the top. While 65 percent of jobs require postsecondary education, managers still consider internships, employment during college, and volunteer experience more important than GPA or relevant coursework when evaluating a candidate’s readiness for a job.

Kilfoye echoes the message of the survey, going further into what he thinks students need before they graduate.

“Employers today expect recent college graduates to demonstrate the equivalent of two years’ worth of work experience in their domain before they’ll consider hiring them,” he reveals. “That’s why it’s important to build experiential opportunity right into our academic programs, so learners apply classroom skills to solve real-world problems for real workplace sponsors.”

Given that many degree programs available today put more emphasis on classroom learning than time in the field, it’s up to discerning future grads to invest their time and energy in an education program that understands what employers really want. This, Kilfoye explains, is the reason behind Northeastern University’s co-operative education program and the Experiential Network, the institution’s all-virtual, project-based experiential learning platform.

“Through experiential opportunities likes these, our learners are job-ready when they graduate because, not only do they receive expert instruction from scholar-practitioner faculty, but they also have a chance to apply their learnings in the workplace, so they graduate with experience and confidence, establish a professional profile, and build a potential employer network.”

Filling in Experience Gaps

For the student with a high GPA and a history of collegiate success, a program like this may not seem necessary. Employers, however, want to see more than just a credential—especially in job fields where competition is already fierce, such as the sciences, retail, media, and communications. The extra experience that Northeastern graduates gain and bring to the workplace doesn’t simply look good on a resume; it translates into those key components future bosses desire in their next leaders and managers.

“A degree program that combines top-notch academics with authentic workplace experiences is your best bet to bridging the gap between education and employment,” emphasizes Kilfoye.

Since the programs at Northeastern are led by faculty members who work directly in the field at today’s top employers, students will get academic credentials at the same time they are developing those real-world skills that will help them stand out among the competition.

Building Specific Workplace Skills

While we know that employers are looking for experienced graduates to fill the most in-demand positions, the type of experience varies. Hard skills (specific to an individual field) are important, but so are the soft skills relevant to all industries. According to the surveyed employers, multitasking, prioritizing, and interpersonal strengths were the qualities that hiring teams in every job sector look for in new employees.

Instructors like Kilfoye have used this knowledge to create real-world problem-solving opportunities needed to develop these particular skills in students—before they go out into the workplace.

“I’ve had the chance to work with an incredible, talented and dedicated team of people here at Northeastern who live and breathe experiential learning and career readiness every day to help our learners cross the bridge from the classroom to the workplace to achieve their career aspirations.  We’ve enabled thousands of learners to work one-on-one and in teams with real-world sponsors to build leadership skills, learn collaboration, and build career skills and domain knowledge to become job-ready upon graduation.”

It’s what employers want. It’s the Northeastern difference.


Ready to take the next step toward advancing your future?

Learn more about Northeastern’s experiential learning opportunities for graduate students.