Are College Degrees Losing Their Luster? Some Employers Think So

A recent survey of U.S. employers found that 45% plan to cut out their bachelor’s degree requirements for some positions during 2024. That survey also found 55% of companies had removed degree requirements during 2023. Another telling statistic: Four in five of the employers surveyed said they value experience over education when they evaluate candidates for jobs. So, what’s the future for degree requirements in hiring? And why are employers seeing a need to eliminate those requirements for certain positions?

Effects of Degree Requirements

In late 2023, published results of its survey of 800 U.S. employers and found much interest in nixing four-year degree requirements for certain jobs.

It’s widely believed companies started requiring four-year degrees for positions that could just as well be filled by noncollege graduates because businesses were searching for a quick and easy way to deal with unwieldy mountains of applicants. By automatically rejecting those without degrees, they could get down to a manageable number of candidates.

But degree requirements also shut out many candidates capable of filling jobs. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that in 2022 just 37.7% of Americans age 25 or older had at least a bachelor’s degree.

The census figures show that in 2022, 39% of women age 25 and older and 36.2% of men in the same age group had completed a bachelor’s degree or higher. The figures also show that from 2012 to 2022, the percentage of adults 25 and older with at least a bachelor’s degree increased from 34.5% to 41.8% for the non-Hispanic white population; from 21.2% to 27.6% for the Black population; from 51% to 59.3% for the Asian population, and from 14.5% to 20.9% for the Hispanic population.

Those statistics illustrate how requiring four-year degrees for positions that don’t require that kind of education can hamper diversity efforts.

Harvard Business Review article from March-April 2023 emphasizes the importance of skills-based hiring instead of relying on degrees.

“A skills-based approach promises better matching between job candidates and jobs, dramatically expands talent pools, improves internal mobility and employee commitment, and incentivizes HR departments and business units to stay aware of what each job actually entails,” the article says. “This approach also holds the potential to mitigate the economic and racial inequalities that are fracturing U.S. society and compromising the health of its institutions and economy.”

Employer Strategies

For several years, some big employers have been moving away from degree requirements. One approach employers have adopted is to create apprenticeships, internships, and training programs.

One of the authors of the Harvard Business Review article is Ginni Rometty, former CEO of IBM, where she worked to expand opportunities for people of diverse backgrounds.

As a way to tap previously locked-out talent, IBM launched its “SkillsFirst” initiative, which involved changing hiring practices “to create on-ramps for people who were previously overlooked and to build a pipeline of capable nondegreed workers.”

Will This Trend Become Law?

A bill introduced in Congress late last year aims to discourage unneeded degree requirements for some employers.

The bill’s chances are, of course, unknown, but it’s a signal that demand exists for no-degree policies.

The bill would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to ensure that automated screening systems don’t automatically reject nondegreed applicants without also considering alternative experience, such as military service, community college, or a training program.

The bill would apply to companies with more than 500 employees that use automated degree requirement settings in hiring systems. Those employers would have to disclose the expected years of experience applicants need and allow candidates to substitute years of experience for a four-year degree.

“As American workers and employers seek to meet the rapidly changing needs of the 21st century, it is imperative that we eliminate discrimination against workers who meet every qualification for the jobs for which they are applying except for having a bachelor’s degree,” U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), sponsor of the bill, said after it was introduced in October.

“As a businessman who used to run a manufacturing and logistics company, I know firsthand how much our nation depends on a smart and skilled workforce to keep our country running,” co-sponsor U.S. Rep. John James (R-Mich.) said.

Tammy Binford is a Contributing Editor.

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