A bachelor’s degree or not?

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Q: I have the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree, meaning I never walked across a podium and received a piece of paper.  However, I completed all the required coursework.  Can I say, on a resume, that I hold a bachelor’s degree?  What are the risks?

A: Your question is an important one.  Candidates usually try to present themselves in the best light.  However, you must be truthful.  Completing all the required coursework is admirable, but, in your situation, it sounds like you did not receive a bachelor’s degree.  One of the reasons may be that you owe your college or university a payment and then, and only then, will they award a degree to you.  Usually a bachelor’s degree is awarded to students who have completed all the academic requirements but also have settled all outstanding financial obligations too.  Maybe you have unpaid parking tickets?  Maybe you didn’t return a laptop computer that was loaned to you?  Whatever the reason, most colleges require all financial obligations be met before a degree is released.

Many employers will ask you to complete an employment application.  The employment application will likely have “fine print” that specifies that you should provide information that is complete and truthful.  If you include a degree, and you do not have one, you could likely be terminated, at any time, if you were hired.

Further many employers conduct pre-employment background checks on candidates.  I consulted Kellie O’Shea, Esq., PHR, Associate General Counsel of Creative Services, Inc., a background investigation company.  O’Shea offers: “If you lead an employer to believe you have a bachelor’s degree signed by the institution but they find out through a background check that you did not technically receive the diploma, you may find yourself in a sticky wicket with some explaining to do.  Even worse, down the road, someone who knows someone discovers you don’t technically have that diploma on your wall and finds the irresistible need to share this information with your Human Resources Department.”

O’Shea continues, “You risk your reputation and possibly your employment by not accurately representing your education credentials.”

Since you did complete the required coursework, O’Shea has a recommendation.  “You may want to consider adding the word ‘equivalent’ on your application or resume, or addressing this during the interview process.  For employers that require degrees for a position, it can become a question of reliability early on if they feel information was presented in a way that mislead them.”

If you do owe your college funds, contact them.  If needed, arrange a payment plan.  I have met more than one candidate who does not hold a degree because of an outstanding financial obligation.  Don’t let this be an obstacle.  You have completed the coursework, which should be the greater challenge!

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Boston.com Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.

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