“One of the greatest obstacles to escaping poverty is the staggering cost of higher education.” – Chris Van Hollen

OK, I’ll admit it: I’m addicted to my DVR. It’s not so much the ability to catch shows that I might have missed that makes me so obsessed with my Tivo, though.

It’s also the ability to fast forward through the asinine, mind-numbing and craptastic commercials that can annoy me to the point of wanting to cancel cable entirely. I’m paying way too much every month for the privilege of having to fast forward through the barrage of sleazy, spurious and silly ads punctuating pretty much every program.

I know, it’s not like anyone has ever really enjoyed ads on TV. It’s just they’re sliding precipitously in quality.

Pushing a product over the airwaves used to require clever scripting, a memorable tagline or some similar sort of combination of creativity and smarts in order to stand out to consumers. Now, it’s like they’ve just stopped trying entirely, and as soon as I sense a program is going to cut to break, my hand moves immediately to pick up my Tivo controller.

Of course, sometimes my fingers aren’t fast enough finding the fast forward button, which is why I recently happened across a commercial for the University of Phoenix.

I have to admit, it was pretty powerful; powerful enough where I dropped my finger from the remote and actually stopped to watch a commercial. I’m sure you’ve probably seen the spot I’m talking about sometime in the past few months; I’m sure I’d skipped through it dozens of times before I actually caught the ad in its entirety.

What I saw, frankly, really hit me on a personal level, with lines like:

“So my kids don’t have to forage, got two jobs to pay a mortgage, and I’ve also got a brain.

Life’s short, talk is cheap, I’ll be workin’ while you sleep. Still don’t think I’ve got a brain?

You think a resume’s enough, will step up when things get tough, don’t you want that kind of brain?

A degree is a degree. You’re gonna want someone like me, But only if you have a brain.”

And all I can say to that is, #TrueStory. Because, really, it’s my story, too.

The Straw Man: The Myth of College Recruiting and Me.

You see, I have my degree from the University of Phoenix, and it’s an accomplishment I’m damned proud of, thank you very much.

In fact, I graduated with a nearly perfect 3.95 GPA, which I saw as a pretty significant accomplishment considering that I completed my coursework while holding down a full time job, going through a crap load of the emotional garbage (including an unexpected and personally unprecedented layoff) and trying to balance a million competing priorities all at once. I wanted to quit more times than I can tell you, and it was never easy.

But I hung in there, and for the first time in my life, I persevered.

There were a few factors inherent to the University of Phoenix program that significantly impacted my ability to ensure that I was able to make that perseverance paid off with my degree; there were none of the distractions of the “traditional” college experience, stuff like frat parties straight out of Caligula, weeknight keggers or drunken antics; there weren’t intramurals, extracurricular activities or even an athletic program to distract me from my studies.

The point of my program was to compress an entire degree program into a manageable few hours a night with meaningful coursework, challenging curricula, engaged instructors and committed classmates you could always count on for an extra hand.

I also earned my degree by doing my coursework exclusively in the classroom, not online; my University of Phoenix degree required as much face time as any traditional four year program, which was one of the hardest parts about finishing my program.

After the average 9-10 hour workday, it was, admittedly, a complete pain in the ass to do the requisite amount of research and writing the program required, not to mention the emphasis on group-based assignments which made success more or less incumbent on your teamwork with complete strangers.

Contrary to the belief that there’s little social interaction involved in non-traditional education, in fact, there seemed to be a decided emphasis on group assignments throughout my program. What resulted were lessons that were every bit as valuable as the material contained in the coursework itself; whether you liked or hated your arbitrarily assigned groupmates, we HAD to work together if we were going to make it work at all.

We needed each other, and every assignment was only as strong as the weakest group member, making it incumbent on each of us to pull our weight or risk ruining it for everyone. It was a lot of responsibility, and even more work and you’re making a significant investment, with so much of your personal time, money and bandwidth involved in getting a degree that, to my surprise, so many recruiters and employers out there see as, well, worthless.


I worked my ass off to graduate with my degree from the University of Phoenix, doing my coursework without a single, solitary online class. It was a traditional education for nontraditional students, which was designed to accommodate the schedule of full time students, like me, who also had full time jobs.

The night classes were, however, about the only accommodation made for our day jobs. This challenge required the type of commitment that’s rarely required in more traditional undergraduate college programs.

While I did not chug a beer, spend a shit ton of money on branded gear or athletic tickets or on-campus housing and meal plans, I also didn’t graduate with a massive amount of student debt nor did I have to worry about finding a secure job or starting a career, as I had continued working full time.

I had a practical degree that I could immediately leverage in the real world, unlike, say, some random liberal arts degree, and now had the education I needed to take that next step up the ladder both personally, and professionally.

Imagine my surprise to learn that all of that doesn’t count as much as a “traditional” degree, that all the work I did didn’t matter much, since MY degree isn’t nearly as valuable as one from some name brand school with a way higher price tag to justify the fancier name before what’s essentially the exact same diploma as the one I got.

Seriously, the ignorance with which these educational elitists treat my academic experience, the disdain and suspicion with which they dismiss my “non-traditional” degree program and the complete lack of respect they’re willing to confer on anyone whose path towards that diploma might not have been as smooth as theirs.

No matter what the circumstances behind choosing the University of Phoenix might have been for me and the rest of my graduating class, we had all chose to pursue our dreams and our degrees. What I thought was an admirable decision, instead, was greeted largely with scorn, shame or just plain silence.

This seems ridiculous, and you’d think that the value of someone’s education relies less on where they went and more on what they learned. But, sadly, in our society, you’d be wrong – and it’s this focus on pedigree over pedagogy that, frankly, is one of the primary reasons why we’ve got such a pressing problem with the seemingly persistent, pervasive “skills gap” in the first place.

Since so many businesses and bottom lines seem to be getting schooled, maybe it’s time we reeducate ourselves on how we think about the core concept and critical constructs of “education” in recruiting and hiring.

Follow The Yellow Brick Road.

“Higher education is today a booming industry, feeding on the student loans handed out to the desperate.”

-Thomas Frank

No matter how much value we place on education, the fact of the matter is that increasingly today, the opportunity cost just isn’t worth the price of tuition, which has risen far faster than median income, inflation or the overall cost of living in the United States.

In fact, only 1% of students will graduate from a traditional four year college program without incurring some kind of debt before getting their degree, and are borrowing money at record rates; the average student now graduates with over $28,000 in debt, according to a recent report.

Of course, even declaring bankruptcy won’t allow Americans to default on their student loans, meaning that there’s no recourse for those paying the highest prices requisite cost of a college degree.

With tuition costs inevitably spiking to record highs each and every year, more students are forced to withdraw from undergraduate programs due to financial difficulties than ever before, with absolutely nothing to show for it except tens of thousands of dollars in outstanding student loan debt. Increasingly, the high cost of American colleges has led to an influx of international students, with foreign enrollment reaching record highs as colleges look around the world for students willing to pay the price of admission, so to speak.

Of course, rather than reinvesting that tuition money into financial aid or endowed scholarships to offset this issue, most major schools instead pour tens of millions of dollars every year into maintaining big time athletic programs with big time coaches making more than any other faculty member on campus, with many scholarship dollars being diverted to reward those who excel on the playing field at the expense of those whose excellence instead comes in the classroom.

In the culture of college athletics, it’s all about winning at any cost, but it’s easy to forget it’s the average student (and their personal finances) who are almost always the real loser in the ever escalating NCAA arms race.

Lets not forget, of course, that most of the asshats pumping money into these D1 programs represent institutions propped up by state taxes, federally protected loans and the outrageous revenue sharing agreements that come with conference TV contracts and broadcast rights.

It’s all big business, and the coaches roaming the sidelines have salaries and budgets that more closely resemble the CEOs of major corporations, only without having to pay a penny for the top talent it takes to survive – and thrive – in big time athletics. Student athletes get scholarships, but they also get screwed, never seeing a cent while their respective colleges reap untold riches off their efforts.

When I was a freshman starting out at Arizona State University in Tempe – this was a long, long time ago – applying to a college and getting accepted was a pretty simple process. If you were a native of the state of Arizona with a decent GPA and proof that you’d graduated in the top half of your class or took the required high school classes, you’d get a spot at the in-state institution of your choice. Getting a seat was really that simple.

This was before the SAT, ACT and the standardized testing industries were really all that prevalent, and weren’t required for admission for most public universities at the time; many private institutions would even wave off their standardized testing requirements in lieu of “relevant experience,” academic or otherwise.

Of course, with college admissions being decidedly less selective back when you were more or less guaranteed a seat by getting decent grades, the cost of a college education was within reach for pretty much everyone. Back then, a 4 year degree from ASU cost $1,300 a year in tuition, or about 5k total for an undergraduate degree.

This concept of an accessible, affordable education is one that we took for granted. It’s really too damn bad that students today don’t have that same luxury, really.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

“By making college unaffordable and student loans unbearable, we risk deterring our best and brightest from pursuing higher education and securing a good-paying job.” ‘

-Mark Pocan

There seems to be a ton of confusion in the business world in general, and the recruiting world in particular, about how, exactly, we should be valuing college degrees or educational experience.

Nowhere is this confusion more acute than as part of the hiring process, particularly around the difference between “public” and “private” universities.

Let’s be clear: discounting “private” degrees, as many recruiters and employers do, is completely ignorant, considering that ALL colleges and universities not funded by their respective states, and whose employees are not state employees and who aren’t paid for by primarily public funds are private universities. Period.

And all private universities, regardless of prestige or pedigree, are for-profit institutions – from the Ivy League to Stanford, from USC to NYU, these are all private sector enterprises that while technically non-profit, must generate enough revenue to remain self-sufficient and sustainable.

So calling out non-traditional schools like the University of Phoenix as “for-profit” misses the point that so too are every other “private” institution. It also misses the point that the significance of a degree is what it’s in, not where it’s from – that all degrees are created equal for the purposes of checking off that job requirement, and recruiting and hiring pros would be wise to treat them as such instead of instituting some arbitrary system for valuing equivocal experience differently. This makes no sense, when you stop and think about it.

But you know what you call the last place member of the graduating class at the lowest ranked medical school in the world? “Doctor.” Boom.

When I was looking for a new role recently, I found myself in an interview with a recruiter who had maybe two years of experience, tops; he advised me during our in person meeting that I should clarify that my University of Phoenix degree wasn’t done online, and that I should make it explicit that I’d attended classes like at a “real” college. Seriously, dude? A real college? What the hell?

Let me tell you something, kid. I have lapped your ass several times over in terms of recruiting experience, and this is a courtesy interview since I’m connected enough to have been referred to the position you happen to be assigned to as the recruiter of record. We’re both doing each other a courtesy, so let me do you another one by giving you some advice.

If an online degree is somehow worth less than its on campus equivalent, you might want to consider that schools like Maryland, Purdue, Georgia Tech and the University of Chicago, and many of the other targeted schools you recruit from also offer degree programs exclusively online now. Because, you know, it’s the 21st century and all.

Hell, even party schools like Arizona State are in on the action; say what you will about the relative value of a degree, does the fact that someone’s ASU degree was earned online and not in person in Tempe somehow discount having completed the exact same course work and educational requirements as their on-campus counterparts?

That’s like saying that remote workers’ jobs aren’t worth as much as employees who are required to come to the office, even if they’re objectively outperforming them. It’s just stupid.

Of course, maybe the people who continue to make such erroneous assumptions about education might consider going back to school themselves, because it’s abundantly clear that they’ve got a whole hell of a lot to learn.


By Derek Zeller

Derek Zeller draws from over 20 years in the recruiting industry, and he currently is the Director of Recruiting Solutions and Channels with Engage Talent. The last 16 years he has been involved with federal government recruiting specializing within the cleared IT space under OFCCP compliancy. He has experience with both third party agency and in-house recruiting for multiple disciplines. Using out-of-the-box tactics and strategies to identify and engage talent, he has had significant experience in building referral and social media programs, the implementation of Applicant Tracking Systems, technology evaluation, and the development of sourcing, employment branding, and military and college recruiting strategies. Derek currently lives in the Portland, Oregon area. Follow Derek on Twitter @Derdiver or connect with him on LinkedIn.