Experience vs degree: 7 must-know facts for high school graduates

experience vs degree
Does that higher degree get your foot in the door, or does your past work experience count for more? Source: AFP

There is an ongoing battle between experience vs degree. Both are essential, but which is crucial?

According to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, occupations that typically require a bachelor’s degree are expected to have 3.3 million openings each year.

However, a Harvard Business School study found that 37% of employers rank experience as the most important qualification in a candidate, not their education. 

Does this mean a university degree is no longer necessary and that high school graduates should go straight to work?

The answer is more complex than that.

Ultimately, the decision between experience vs degree depends on you,  your career goals, your strengths, and the specific requirements of your chosen field.

experience vs degree

Gaining experience rather than pursuing a college degree allows you to begin working immediately. Source: AFP


Benefits of gaining experience

While choosing to gain work experience instead of getting a degree is not common, it has become increasingly valuable. 

The percentage of jobs requiring a college degree dropped from 51% in 2017 to 44% in 2021, according to the Burning Glass Institute.

This shows a shift in the mindset of employers, such as Apple, Tesla and IBM, who are now more interested in the skills and abilities gained from experiences rather than formal education.

Meanwhile, research from Georgetown University suggests that college graduates earn significantly more over their lifetime compared to non-graduates.

This conflicts with data from a university in Massachusetts which says otherwise. It found that college graduates may not always out-earn high school graduates.

On top of that, going to university can be expensive and many take loans to help cover the cost. The time taken to pay off their debts may not outweigh the earning potential of a degree. 

On the other hand, by replacing university with internships, travel and volunteering, you stand to gain experience and skills to apply to many different jobs and industries.

Life experiences can help you develop effective communication skills, problem-solving know-how, adaptability, and critical thinking abilities as well — all of which are highly sought-after by today’s employers.

An employee who can contribute from day one and require little training is more in-demand than someone who can perform complex coding but cannot work in a team.

experience vs degree

Earning a degree often provides you with background information on an industry and helps you develop essential technical skills. Source: AFP

Benefits of earning a degree

Earning a degree before gaining work experience has its perks. 

With a degree in hand, you will likely earn more than non-graduates. Research has found that bachelor’s degree holders earn 84 per cent more than those with just high school diplomas. On average, college graduates will make over US$1.2 million more over their lifetime. 

Statistics from the US Bureau of Labour Statistics show that in 2020, people with a bachelor’s degree earned around US$1,248 per week, while those with just a high school diploma made about US$746 per week. 

While a degree doesn’t guarantee you a job, it makes it easier to find one. According to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, by 2031, it is projected that over 72 per cent of jobs in the US will require candidates to have a college degree.

In 2020, the national unemployment rate for those with bachelor’s degrees was just 2%, compared to 3.8% for those with only a high school diploma. 

Employers are also always on the lookout for candidates with specialised knowledge and skills. With a degree, you will be able to focus on one specific field and become an expert in your area. 

Going to university will also give you the opportunity to explore other subjects and different industries. This might help you find a passion you didn’t know about.

Do employers prefer experience or a degree?

In the ongoing debate on whether employers prefer those with experience or a degree, it really comes down to the type of job and the industry you’re aiming to work in.

Let’s start with industries where experience matters more than education. For example, if you are interested in the IT field, having hands-on experience with coding languages and actual software development can take you further than a degree. 

According to a study by Harvard Business Review, only about 29% of IT roles posted by companies require a degree. So if you’re skilled in programming and have practical knowledge, you have a good shot at landing a job in IT, even without a degree.

In areas such as plumbing or electrical work, it’s all about what you can do with your hands. Employers in these fields often value on-the-job experience more than formal education.

But then there are industries where education holds more weight for career advancement. For example, professions like architecture, engineering, law or medicine.

In these fields, having a formal degree is pretty much a non-negotiable must-have before you can even think about starting your career. 

If you want to become a doctor, you’ll need to go through medical school and complete thousands of hours of training in clinical settings before you can practice.

However, even in these industries, having some sort of practical experience, like internships or co-op placements, can still be really valuable.

Whether you choose to focus on getting a degree or gaining hands-on experience depends on the industry you’re interested in and the specific job you want to pursue. 

experience vs degree

Employer preference for a degree or experience often depends on the industry you choose. Source: AFP

Experience vs degree: A little bit of both goes a long way

The debate between experience vs degree in the job market has no definitive answer as to which is better. 

Both education and experience are beneficial and can be advantageous. Both hold value in the job market, and the ideal candidate has a combination of the two. 

In many cases, a combination of both experience and a degree is the best. This allows you to leverage the strengths of each. 

For example, someone with a degree but limited practical experience may seek internships or entry-level positions to gain hands-on skills, while an experienced professional without a degree may consider pursuing further education to expand their career options.

experience vs degree

Earning a bachelor’s degree can be more expensive. Source: AFP

Experience vs degree: 7 must-know facts for every high schooler

Choosing the right path can be difficult when it comes down to experience vs degree. There are a number of factors to consider to ensure you make the right decision for your future.

Here are a few things you should consider as you make this decision:

Career goals and industry requirements

Determine the career path you want to take and research the requirements. Some professions prioritise experience over degrees, while others demand academic qualifications.

For example, technical fields like engineering often require a degree, while creative industries like graphic design often ask for a portfolio and practical skills.

Cost and time

Consider the financial implications and time commitment of each option. Pursuing a degree involves paying tuition fees for several years of study.

A bachelor’s degree can be costly. A four-year institution’s average annual tuition cost was around US$26,027. This means a four-year degree could cost approximately US$104,108 in total.

Meanwhile, gaining experience through internships or entry-level positions can offer income without the burden of student loans.

Market demand

Research the job market trends in the field you are interested in. Some industries, like technology or digital marketing, require practical experience more than academic credentials.

Compare the employment rates and salary ranges for degree holders and experienced professionals in your chosen field.

Networking opportunities

Both a degree and professional experience will give you networking opportunities. University programmes often offer internships, industry events and alumni networks that can connect you with potential employers. 

Similarly, working in your field will allow you to build relationships with colleagues, mentors and industry leaders.

Learning style

Think about your learning style and career preferences. Some people do well in structured academic environments, while others excel in hands-on, real-world settings.

Identify which path aligns best with your style and goals.

experience vs degree

Some industries prefer candidates with experience, while other industries require candidates to have at least a bachelor’s degree. Source: AFP

Career growth

Consider career advancement and professional development when choosing between experience vs degree.

While a degree may open doors to higher-level positions and roles, practical experience can lead to promotions, leadership opportunities and entrepreneurial ventures.


Academic recommendations from professors prove your knowledge of a subject, while professional recommendations from previous employers can validate your practical skills.