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If your company requires you to get a degree for a promotion, consider a distance-learning program, writes Nick Corcodilos.

Ask the Headhunter: Do I need a college degree to get a promotion?

Nick Corcodilos started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979 and has answered over 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community.

In this special Making Sen$e edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards or salary negotiations. No guarantees — just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.


Question: I am the only manager in my company that reports directly to a C-Suite leader. My peers are all at the director level. My boss and I have been told time and time again that I cannot be promoted to director because I do not have a college degree. I do the same work and have the same level of responsibility as my director peers. My team and I all score at the highest levels on all reviews. But without a degree they will not allow me to rise above the manager level.

Since I am basically a director without a proper title, does this fall under any sort of discrimination? What can I do about it? I would love to go back to school, but I am currently putting my own kids through college.

It is frustrating to think that I would have to leave a job and company I truly love just to further my career.

Nick Corcodilos: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this story. It’s a distressing commentary on corporate management.

Unless someone has explained to you what the material value of a degree is to the director-level jobs, the company is risking losing one of its most productive people for what seems to be an arbitrary reason. I don’t agree with such corporate policies. I think they’re counter-productive. But I don’t control employers. (See “No College Degree, No Problem.”)

I’m not a lawyer so I can’t comment on discrimination or legalities. It might be worth investing a few bucks in a good employment/labor specialist attorney for an opinion and guidance. My guess is that their advice might depend on whether the degree requirement is levied on all employees or just on you.

To get another perspective, I turned to my good buddy Suzanne Lucas, who publishes the outstanding (and contrarian) Evil HR Lady column for Inc. magazine. She’s one of the few HR gurus I respect and trust. Her insights and advice cut through the bureaucracy every time. She’s not a lawyer, either, but she has more experience with HR compliance than I do. Here’s her reaction to what I told her about your situation:

“There’s nothing illegal about discriminating against someone who lacks a college degree, but there is a whole lot of stupid involved. If he’s got years of experience that prove his capabilities, then what does it matter what he did between the ages of 18 and 22?

“That said, I’d advise him to get a degree. I tend to recommend Western Governors University for situations like this. Not because I think he needs to learn these things but because companies are super hung up on the idea that everyone needs a degree.”

Suzanne and I agree about your employer’s stupidity. But we’re both pragmatists. You need to decide what’s important to you, and figure out how to achieve it.

If your company is dead-set against promoting you without a degree, you have two options.

One, you could leave your job for another company that will commit to your career growth without the need for a degree.

Two, you can follow Suzanne’s prescription. Get a degree, but be smart about it: Choose a good, accredited distance-learning college.

While I trust Suzanne’s guidance, I don’t know the school she recommends. One of my favorite distance schools is New Jersey’s Thomas Edison State University. It’s a publicly-funded state institution, and one of the first legit distance schools. Research both, and others if you like, but consider signing up. (See “A matter of college degrees.”)

Here’s what you might not know. The cost and investment of time might be less than you think, and the return on investment might be better too.

I learned these tips long ago from my friends at Thomas Edison:

  • You can test out of many required courses by virtue of your knowledge and experience. This saves you money, and it can cut down the time to the degree dramatically.
  • You can even complete much of the coursework and then transfer your credits to a bricks-and-mortar school if it means something to you to have a sheepskin from a better-known institution. (I wouldn’t worry about that.)

Check out your options. There’s probably a similar state-funded college where you live.

I wish you the best.

Dear Readers: Have you encountered college-degree discrimination? Do you believe there’s a difference between a distance-learning degree and a bricks-and-mortar credential?


Nick Corcodilos invites Making Sense readers to subscribe to his free weekly Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter. His in-depth “how to” PDF books are available on his website: “How to Work With Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you,” “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps,” “How Can I Change Careers?” and “Fearless Job Hunting.”

Send your questions to Nick, and join him for discussion every week here on Making Sense. Thanks for participating!

Copyright © 2018 Nick Corcodilos. All rights reserved in all media. Ask the Headhunter® is a registered trademark.

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