♫ We Don’t Need Your Education ♫

Why Treehouse Engineering doesn’t ask job candidates if they have a college degree.

A few weeks ago someone pinged me with a simple question. “How many members of your team have college degrees?” The request made sense — we’re an online education company, and there could be some marketable tidbits about how many of our developers and designers were self-taught.

If you’re expecting an answer to that question here, I’m going to have to disappoint you just as much as I disappointed the person who originally asked me. I don’t have a clue.

A lot of companies use “first-pass filters” in their hiring process. It’s a simple way to raise the bar and reduce the number of applicants if your pool is too large. Imagine that you’re a hiring manager responsible for sifting through 2,000 applications. Are you going to pore over each one in detail and rank them accordingly? That would take weeks, and by then your ideal candidate is likely employed somewhere else. So you devise shortcuts — let’s eliminate all the candidates who don’t have college degrees. It’s an easy filter and it may have a big impact on the number of candidates. Let’s then eliminate all the candidates that don’t have specific skills or tools — XML and Adobe Illustrator — from the list. Rinse and repeat until you’ve whittled your 2,000 applications down to something that you can more reasonably parse.

You can see why this is a valuable tactic for a hiring manager — it’s easy, and quickly allows you to identify a smaller pool of candidates to focus on.

The impact this strategy has is difficult to measure, but I think we can tie it to two problems: the over-importance of getting a college degree, and the meaningless padding of resumes.

College degrees make for an easy first-pass filter. It’s easy to see if somebody claims a degree on their resume, and you can make assumptions from there — they stuck to it for four years, were at least responsible enough to graduate, etc. This means that pretty much everyone uses it. We’ve allowed it to become common wisdom that people with college degrees are eminently more hirable than people without. The truth of the situation is backwards — people are getting college degrees to appear more hirable because they know that this is how hiring managers operate. They know that when they look through job postings a four-year degree is commonly listed as a requirement to discourage “unqualified” graduates. So they go through the motions, often taking on tons of debt, to check off a box that makes their potential hiring manager’s life easier.

Resumes are the other problem. You might assume that the point of a resume is to communicate your experience and skills to a potential employer, but you quickly learn that your resume is all about capturing attention. List as many things as possible for your skills to help you stand out and make sure you seem as qualified as possible. Tweak colors and fonts and presentation styles to give yourself a visual edge over your competitors. Resumes have only one goal — to keep you in the running long enough to get to an interview, past all the first-pass filters. Outside of that they have little value to most job-seekers or potential employers.

So no, I don’t know how many of my team members have college degrees. I have never asked and don’t particularly care. We’ve grown our team without ever soliciting a resume, because they don’t serve us much purpose. It may be unorthodox not to inquire into a job candidate’s education or request a resume, but at the end of the day we’d rather focus on the things that matter. Like how well the candidate can integrate into our team, and what they can bring to the table. We acknowledge that the people who can help us out may be the people who never chose to go to college, and may not have the right buzzwords listed on their resume. We explicitly don’t allow those things to distract us. And I think we’ve hired an impressive team as a result.


Tommy is the VP of Engineering at Treehouse. We’re on a mission to design, build, and maintain the best online learning service in the world. Sound awesome? Join us!