Three people's hands holding degrees

Insights & Resources

Does Commercial Real Estate Success Require a College Degree?

Three people's hands holding degrees

Last month, Poline Search Partners conducted two polls on LinkedIn considering whether a college degree is needed to succeed in the commercial real estate (CRE) industry.

The first poll, “Do you think a degree is critical in CRE?”, earned 195 votes, 28 comments and these results: 65% of voters said a degree was not critical and 35% said it was. What was most interesting, however, was almost every single comment touted the value of a college degree, an opposite sentiment to the poll results. But not necessarily for specific success in the CRE field.

No, most commenters praised the degree experience more so for its ability to teach life skills. For example, one professional said, “Having a liberal arts degree at its minimum better prepares you to be an adult and ensures that you are more well-rounded.”

Another college degree supporter said, “It’s also about learning to be independent, better understanding your likes/passions and options. It’s a journey of exploration.”

Of course, dissenters were in the mix, but their comments were less in number. One commentor said, “It depends on the smarts and abilities of the individual.”

Yet another offered this perspective: “It’s the great debate of the next generation. YouTube University plus prior generation textbooks can net the same knowledge for pennies on the dollar, but there’s no event at the end to certify the process. Does that really matter? Depends who you ask!”

Poline Perspective on CRE + Degrees

Taking these votes and comments into account (as well as my experience in a CRE search firm), here’s some general observations:

  • Several of our clients require a college degree for all searches we conduct for them. They are in the minority, but based on this one data point alone, you can argue that a degree offers its recipient greater opportunities than someone without one.
  • Some of the most successful people I know in commercial real estate do not possess a college degree. There are dozens of reasons why someone might forego obtaining a college diploma, and most of these have little bearing on a person’s future success.  
  • I agree with the commenters who claimed the value of a degree lies as much, if not more, in a person’s experience outside of the classroom. For many people, college is the first time they live outside their parents’ home. Gaining maturity and life skills while interacting with people from a myriad of backgrounds can occur outside of college, but it does seem that a college environment is particularly good for providing this kind of experience. 

Could Degree Necessity Be Discipline-Specific?

The passionate feedback to the first poll further piqued my interest in the topic, thus leading to the second poll, “Which CRE discipline requires a degree for success?”.

If CRE professionals on LinkedIn felt strongly whether a CRE degree was or was not required for success, maybe they had strong opinions about which CRE fields would most benefit from a degree, so I asked the question.

The poll included four options for which participants could vote: Leasing, Property & Asset Management, Construction & Development, and Marketing. Here are the results: Out of 83 votes, 48% of people felt Construction & Development most required a college degree while 31% said Property & Asset Management, 12% chose Marketing, and 8% selected Leasing.

There were not as many comments on this poll, but one stuck out. The respondent said, “In my experience, you don’t need a degree for success, but the degree often leads to the opportunity to be successful.”

It’s an insightful quote that works in two ways. First, a degree can provide a better chance of getting your foot in the door with a company. Or, quite literally, the time spent in college helps make connections that introduce you to future opportunities within a given industry.

Poline Perspective on CRE Disciplines + Degrees

After considering these votes and comments, here’s my take on which disciplines most benefit from a college degree and why:

  • I can see how the Construction & Development disciplines might benefit the most from a degree given how highly technical the work experience can be. We know numerous candidates with civil engineering or construction management backgrounds who experience great success in this part of the business. 
  • It stands to reason that success in Leasing and other sales-specific roles may not be as dependent on a college degree because the skills required for these jobs are often innate in people. I also don’t think colleges and universities focus as much on these practical skills. 
  • With more college-level material online and covered by industry organizations like ICSC, NAIOP and ULI, the ability for professionals, with or without degrees, to supplement their knowledge base has never been greater. It will be interesting to see how this impacts college degree rates in CRE going forward.  

While the verdict on the necessity of a degree in the CRE industry (and in which disciplines) may still be out, it’s clear strong opinions on the topic exist, and many professionals, with or without degrees, can be tremendously successful within the field.