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Why College Degrees Supplanted High School Diplomas

Not too long ago, a high school diploma was a ticket to all sorts of decent occupations. Farmers, mechanics, factory workers, graphic artists and secretaries were among the many workers who did not need to go to college, and most of them did not.

Nowadays a diploma serves mainly as a ticket to further study, usually involving a side trip to the financial aid office. At many workplaces, including the company I run, you can’t even get an interview for a permanent full-time job without higher education.

Some people call it degree inflation. I think it is just a fact of life in the information age.

If I were running a car wash, or a housecleaning service, or a restaurant, I would not insist that all my employees have an advanced degree. Those businesses incorporate many jobs that do not require 16 years or more of education. Moreover, those are businesses that generally do not expect their employees to stay for many years or, in most cases, to advance into management. They just need good, diligent workers, and there are many less-educated candidates who fit the bill.

But I run a financial and tax planning firm. Nobody would argue that the personnel who advise clients on investment or tax matters involving millions of dollars need only a high school education. Someone might, however, ask why I require a college degree from someone who answers our telephone or sends out our mail.

The answer is that at Palisades Hudson, we are in the business of growing our business, which is very much the business of growing our people. Just like a farmer who wants to plant her seeds in the most fertile soil possible, we want to start with the best people we can get. The skills someone brings when he or she come to us are not the only skills that person will ever have. The tasks we ask them to do at the beginning of their employment are not the only tasks they will ever perform. We want people who are ready and eager to grow.

A college degree is no guarantee of this, of course, nor is the absence of a college degree a sure sign that someone lacks aptitude or ambition. But our search for the most versatile and trainable talent has to start somewhere. In a knowledge-based business, we find that it works best to start with people who have had more education, and who have taken good advantage of it. (We know because we ask to see their transcripts, and we pay close attention to what they studied and how well they performed.)

We are far from alone in this approach. Consider the Atlanta-based law firm of Busch, Slipakoff & Schuh, which was profiled in a recent, much-discussed New York Times article due to its practice of only hiring college graduates. The law firm seems to have a lot in common with us here at Palisades Hudson, as a relatively young, still-growing firm that wants to go as far as it can. The law firm seems to move its people into positions of greater responsibility once they show they can handle it, which we do too. A clerk at the law firm, for example, became a paralegal.

People are more than just the job title they happen to have at the moment. They are whatever their capabilities and opportunities allow them to become. My favorite task as a manager is helping our staff discover what they can be and what they can do.

That’s why the person we hired to answer our phones, Amy Laburda, is the same person who drafted this blog entry. It is why the person we hired part time, as a high schooler, to shred paper became our first administrative manager after she earned her degree. Another high school hire earned his degree and eventually became our firm’s information technology manager. Yet another associate who started with us part time while in school, Cristina DeLuca, is now the administrative associate who manages operations for our Scarsdale office.

Our work does not require great physical strength or athletic skill or artistic talent. If it did, I would not require college degrees, which do not correlate with those attributes. But we require mental agility, and the best - albeit not the only - place to find that is among people who have used college to train their minds.

As Megan McArdle, a columnist for The Daily Beast, wrote in her response to the Times article, “if lots of people have a college degree, it's easier for employers to require one as a way to winnow down the resume pile - and the signalling effect of not having one is stronger.”

I don’t want to be elitist, and I don’t think that is what I am being through my hiring practices. I wish our society had more jobs to offer people with less education; unfortunately, our drive to raise the minimum legal wage is likely to have the opposite effect. I wish everyone had access to an affordable, accredited form of higher education, and I hope we will evolve something like this - perhaps combining current high school and college in a six- or seven-year, locally delivered curriculum - as the 21st century moves along.

But in today’s economy and today’s society, employers want the best-trained and most readily trainable minds. You should not fault us for seeking them on the college campuses where they tend to congregate.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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