Education vs. Work Experience


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With college tuition costs climbing at a record pace, many high school students must decide whether to invest in a college degree or dive right into an entry-level job. Whether driven by economics or personal preference, this decision can have a major impact on the course of your professional career as well as your personal life.

Benefits of a College Degree: Preparation for Today's Job Market

Throughout most of the 20th century, a high school diploma was usually enough to demonstrate to American employers that a job applicant could handle a majority of basic tasks. In fact, many large companies operated their own internal training and development programs for recent high school graduates. Many employees ended up working for the same companies their entire lives.

Changes in the global job market have dramatically changed these expectations. In our millennium, most workers entering the job market are expected to change career paths at least seven times before they reach retirement age. With workers changing jobs more frequently, few companies can afford to invest heavily in employee development. Therefore, more employers expect job seekers to develop appropriate skills on their own before being hired.

Advantages of Gaining Work Experience

Of course, not everyone can afford to invest in a full-time, traditional degree program right after high school. Lacking a college degree does not have to restrict your career choices. Many professionals start their careers in retail sales, customer service or other entry-level positions. While these positions may not be glamorous, employees in them earn more than just a salary: they also earn real-world job experience.

Although a college degree program certainly builds both knowledge and skills, few colleges and universities can fully prepare students for the daily challenges of a career. The pressure to make good grades and to complete assignments on time rarely, if ever, matches the demands of a full-time job.

The Best of Both Worlds, Part I: Working on Campus

Since both strategies carry potential rewards, many colleges and universities have started to emphasize work experience as an important element of their degree programs. Depending on your college major, you might find yourself required to get professional experience while still attending classes. Each type of placement offers different benefits, and all of them help students establish strong reputations for success early in their careers.

  • Internships.
    Internships can help you round out your classroom education with work experience. More and more industries have opened up internship programs over the last few decades, helping students to gain useful insight into the ways that professionals turn theory into practice.

    Most internships are unpaid positions at professional companies. Instead of receiving a salary, interns trade their time for the opportunity to earn college credit. In most cases, interns must keep a detailed journal of their work experiences. Usually, an intern must also prepare a final report or a presentation that demonstrates the skills s/he has developed during his or her placement.

  • Study Programs.
    Each year, the federal government offers significant financial aid in the form of work-study grants. Originally, these programs funded part-time jobs on college campuses, so selected students could obtain a stable job to help pay for their education expenses.

    Over the past few years, many students have taken advantage of relaxed guidelines for work-study placements to earn jobs in more career-oriented positions. Instead of working in campus dining halls, students may use work-study positions to gain hands-on experience in social service agencies, nonprofit organizations or performing arts troupes. By pursuing positions that are more relevant to their future careers, students can put themselves in a better position to apply for openings in their chosen fields after graduation.

  • Cooperative Work Placements.
    In fields such as nursing and technology, employers need as much help as they can get. Therefore, a growing number of colleges and universities are offering cooperative work placements to help students earn paid work experience while still completing their degree programs.

    Students in cooperative work placements can often start earning competitive hourly wages and seniority within a company. This benefits both the student and the company: the student has the opportunity to eliminate the stress and uncertainty of a post-graduation job hunt, while the company has the opportunity to groom the student as to the specific duties and responsibilities of their position.

  • Apprenticeships.
    In a number of specialized professions, students must complete an apprenticeship under the direction of a skilled supervisor before they can earn a license or a certification in their field. Traditionally, most apprenticeships begin immediately after a student earns their degree. More recently, colleges and universities have begun to offer extended degree programs that encourage students to begin their apprenticeships while completing their final few years of study.

    Employers rely on these supervised work experiences as an opportunity to bridge the gap between formal learning and on-the-job skill building. Moving beyond mere tradition, apprenticeships offer students the chance to really understand the demands of a profession before moving on their first full-time jobs.

The Best of Both Worlds, Part II: Online College Classes for Working Adults


Educational technology has revolutionized the way that students can earn their college degrees. Instead of choosing to pursue school or work, a growing number of adult professionals can apply themselves to both by pursuing online degree programs. Students who take college courses online while working have much more leeway to arrange their schedules to accommodate both, making progress on their degree program without losing their income.

Online degree programs can be found at every degree level, in dozens of fields and subjects. If you already have a busy professional and/or personal life, taking college classes online might be the solution you need.

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