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Does a College Diploma Make Someone Special?

After years of incubation, your startup is finally growing. You have gained the equivalent of a PhD: You understand customers' needs. You’ve discovered an effective sales model that can be repeated. You are creating end-user demand and building an infrastructure to execute your business model efficiently.

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Your next step is to hire talented people with leadership potential, who share your passion for the business and have skills to think creatively and critically, solve problems, listen, and build esprit de corps. You post an ad and disseminate it throughout your network. 

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As the responses come in, you wonder if a college degree is a prerequisite for employment. Does a degree alone make someone special? I would argue that it doesn’t. Rather, it’s the experiences the diploma might represent that are important. Were I in your shoes, and college graduates replied to my ad, here are the questions I’d ask — questions to determine if a college diploma makes the applicant special.

1. What did the college graduate do outside of class in an unstructured environment?

The answer would help me better understand the candidate's character. What people spend their time and money on is generally what is important to them, and what is important to them reflects who they are. Did they spend their time on entrepreneurial activities? Did they demonstrate leadership potential? Did they spend their time selfishly or unselfishly? 

Did they engage people unlike themselves? Explore something they didn’t know before? Do things that were familiar and easy or try difficult things out of a sense of purpose? In short, did these grads’ extra-curricular activities reflect whether they are purpose or comfort-driven? Internally or externally-motivated? Open-minded or closed-minded? 

2. What courses did the college graduate choose to enroll in, and why?

Did he or she take classes because someone said to, and because these courses were required or might lead to a job? Those are comfort-oriented reasons and point to decisions based on extrinsic motivations. In other words, do you want to hire someone who needs an incentive to work? Better to hire someone who thought of college as a journey to discover personal values and a sense of purpose. Education is a drawing-out, not a putting in. You want people who love what they do and do what they love.

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3. What did the graduate do in class, and how was his or her performance measured? 

If the final grade for a course depended only on how well students took tests, its value is diminished. Why do we insist on testing people on their ability to memorize information that can be found online for free? The more valuable classroom experiences occur outside of the building. Did the course offer experiential opportunities that developed skills for testing assumptions, hypotheses and ideologies? Did the course enhance the skills needed to discover and validate legitimate sources of information, then synthesize and apply them? 

Did the course also teach students interviewing and relationship-building skills? Did it teach how to measure performance in the type of unstructured environment that entrepreneurs find themselves in each day? Did the grade measure such things as diligence, discipline and passion for doing work each day? 

If I were an entrepreneur with a startup that was finally growing, I’d want to invest in people who are effective enough that together we could do the right things and do them right. I would not be looking for people to manage, but for people to lead. A college diploma doesn’t make someone special, only the relevant and specific and unique experiences it might represent. 

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