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High school diploma or college degree? What’s really necessary?

What do billionaires Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and David Geffen have in common besides having achieved extraordinary success in business? The answer to that question for some employers is: They’re unemployable. None of those business greats earned a bachelor’s degree. 

The value of a college degree is often debated among employers, but many now are requiring a bachelor’s degree for more positions than in the past. So even such business luminaries as Microsoft’s Gates, Virgin Group’s Branson, and DreamWorks cofounder Geffen would see their applications kicked out well before the interview stage if they were seeking employment with organizations that have adopted college-degree requirements.

A survey from CareerBuilder released in March found that 27 percent of employers surveyed said their educational requirements have increased over the last five years, and 30 percent are now hiring more college-educated workers for positions once held by high school graduates. Of the companies hiring STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) professionals, 46 percent reported increased educational requirements.

Why the change?
The glut of jobseekers seen in recent years may be part of the reason employers are demanding more education. Allison Duke, an assistant professor of management at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, says she believes degree requirements often serve the purpose of narrowing down the applicant pool.

“It’s just one hurdle that can quickly eliminate candidates who are ‘perceived’ to be qualified,” Duke says. “Additionally, many managers believe that the dedication and knowledge you gain by earning a four-year degree is a value-add to the position even though, technically, the job could be performed by someone without it.”

Duke put the question of why employers require a degree for positions that non-degreed candidates may be able to perform to a group of human resources professionals she’s had as students and then compiled their responses.

The HR professionals said attaining a degree shows employers that a candidate is goal-oriented and has been exposed to a breadth of knowledge that’s beneficial in the workplace. They also pointed out that job postings often note that the education requirement may be exchanged for applicable work experience.

When asked how common it is for employers to insist on degrees, the HR respondents said they think it is fairly common. When asked if they ever waive degree requirements for otherwise qualified candidates, the answers were mixed. One respondent said her company’s policy is to stick to its education requirement, but a couple of years ago the employer decided to remove degree requirements from many positions.

Another respondent said the applicant pool plays a role in deciding whether to waive degree requirements because it’s sometimes hard to find enough applicants with degrees in some rural areas, and experience is sometimes a suitable substitute for the degree.

The HR professionals also were asked if they think employers put themselves at a disadvantage if they won’t even consider candidates without degrees. A couple said yes. Another said possibly, but jobseekers should be ready for the requirement. “As an HR person, I tend to question why someone wouldn’t pursue a degree, especially if they have tuition assistance available. Despite God-given talents, a person nowadays should not be surprised that a degree may be required,” the HR professional said.

Legal issues
Regardless of how employers feel about requiring degrees, they need to consider legal issues. For example, John Vering, chairman of the employment and labor practice group with the Armstrong Teasdale law firm in Kansas City, Missouri, says employers always face a potential claim if they have a requirement that isn’t really necessary.

Amelia Holstrom, an attorney with Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C. in Springfield, Massachusetts, advises employers to stay away from hard and fast education requirements for all positions even if the requirement is for just a high school diploma. “If employers are requiring specific degrees for positions, they must be able to demonstrate that the degree requirement is job-related for the specific position in question and consistent with business necessity,” she says.

Holstrom says requiring an applicant to have a bachelor’s degree in information technology for a computer software position is acceptable, but “there may not be a business reason for the janitor who cleans the building at the end of the night to have even a high school diploma.”

It’s crucial for employers to examine the jobs they’re trying to fill when deciding on education requirements. “If the employer does not do this and requires a certain type of degree for a position that it is clearly not needed for, such a requirement may have a disparate impact on members of certain protected classes and open the employer up to an antidiscrimination lawsuit under state or federal law,” Holstrom says.

In addition to setting inappropriate education requirements, employers have to be careful about waiving education requirements. Vering explains that employers who say they require a degree and then hire someone without one run the risk of having a candidate claim rejection based on race, religion, disability, or some other protected characteristic. Employers are at a disadvantage when they depart from established procedure, he says.

Vering says it’s safer for employers to avoid specific degree requirements unless they’re absolutely necessary. “It’s dangerous when you have job requirements that really don’t make any sense,” he says, because they look arbitrary and invite someone to sue saying the employer doesn’t follow its own policies. “That shows evidence of discrimination.”

Holstrom agrees. “If an employer has such a requirement and then makes an exception to it, then it is likely that the requirement was not job-related and was not consistent with business necessity,” she says. “In addition, if the employer skips over other applicants and appoints someone who does not have the necessary prerequisites, other applicants, including internal applicants, may believe that the decision was based on discrimination.”