College was once the golden ticket to the American Dream of greater job security and higher lifetime wages. In the last decade, however, college enrollments have declined. According to a recent Harris poll, 51% of U.S. adults report that skyrocketing college costs have decreased their ability to pursue a post-high school education.
Although 62% of U.S. employees 25 or older lack a college degree, some employers still use the college degree as gatekeeper when assessing which candidate to hire or promote. Does this work any longer, or are employers missing out on skilled employees with talent and drive because the best potential hires lacked the time and money to attend college?
No longer the only path
Some employers, perhaps forced by the Great Resignation to seek out formerly overlooked sources of talent, have figured this out. According to the business research firm Burning Glass Institute, employers dropped or lowered their college degree requirements for 46% of middle-skill and 31% of high-skill jobs between 2017 and 2019. Maryland stripped college degree requirements from thousands of job listings. The White House under both Biden and Trump ordered that education requirements for some federal jobs be dropped.
Realizing that employers need a higher level of technological skills, Miami Dade College, Western Governors University and other organizations are providing alternative credentials in the form of industry-recognized certificates, micro-credentials and digital badges. Google has created a career certificate program that enables employees to attain key positions in an employer consortium that includes Deloitte, SAP, Verizon and Walmart as well as Google. Industry-recognized certifications require employees to learn clearly defined skills and pass an exam. Typically, these certifications can be completed within three to six months and cost between $50 and $1,000.
The benefits to employers that shift away from college degree requirements? Many.
When the Society for Human Resource Management surveyed 500 U.S. executives and 1,200 supervisors, the majority reported they viewed credentialed employees as better performers than those with only a traditional college degree.
Employers that eliminate their fixation on college degrees gain access to talented individuals unable to follow the traditional four-year college route to success — those whose lives and financial ability required they head straight into the work force, and others, among them veterans and military spouses.
Employers seeking a diverse workforce see benefits from a focus on skills rather than on college degrees. As just one example, just 26% of African American adults have a college degree, in contrast with 40% of Caucasian adults. As another example, I helped a client resolve an equal employment opportunity/discrimination complaint by using common sense and questioning the need for a bachelor’s degree. The client had promoted a white man with a bachelor’s in history in preference to a Hispanic woman with an associate’s degree in secretarial science and years of administrative experience into a position that required high levels of ability to organize data and create systems. “Why?” I asked. “We require a college degree for all promotions,” the senior manager explained. “But which employee has the skills that fit the position?” I asked. When the client answered that question, he reversed the decision and the complaint was resolved.
Changes employers and HR need to make
Employers need to end college degrees as a gating requirement, or at least open positions to those who have college degrees OR equivalent experience.
They need to revamp their job descriptions and specify the skills needed to succeed in key positions. Six years ago, IBM revised its job descriptions to focus on skills. Now, 50% of IBM’s posted U.S. positions don’t require a college degree.
Third, they need to overhaul their automated applicant screening systems.
A college degree, once the golden ticket to the American Dream of greater job security and higher lifetime wages, remains valuable. Is it more valuable than the right skill set? That’s debatable and likely inaccurate.