In the U.S. job market, the numbers don’t add up. While fewer than 40% of Americans hold a bachelor’s degree, research indicates the majority of jobs still require one.
With near-historic levels of job openings, Fortune 500 companies, federal and state governments, and even startups are rethinking the emphasis on degrees when hiring, opening the door to workers who have the aptitudes and mindset that make them able and eager to contribute.
It’s a revolutionary change that stands to benefit employers, the economy, and job seekers.
An overemphasis on degrees causes employers to miss out on the more than 70 million U.S. workers who do not have one, but have the experience, desire, and aptitudes to fill gaps in the labor market. The degree barrier disrespects worker dignity because it keeps many qualified workers from entering jobs that would put them in the middle class and causes individuals to question their worth despite years of experience.
Brandy Grace and LaShana Lewis exemplify why companies should make this move — not only for their own bottom lines, but for the benefit of workers and their communities.
2 Stories Show How Focusing on Skills, Aptitudes, and Mindset Will Enhance Economic Mobility, Human Dignity
LaShana Lewis knows first-hand how degree requirements hold a person back.
After high school, she left home in East St. Louis, Illinois, for college in northern Michigan. While she earned a full scholarship and got top marks in computer science, financial pressures and the isolation she experienced being one of the few Black students on campus took a toll. Lewis left school.
Despite having the same abilities as other applicants, Lewis could not get a job in computer science without a degree. So, she was forced to take a job as an afterschool van driver. When the program lost its computer science tutor, Lewis’ boss asked her to fill in — at her driver’s wage. Her boss said he could not hire her full-time because she did not have a bachelor’s degree.
Lewis was soon referred to other afterschool providers that needed tutors. While she took on this extra work and helped numerous students build computer science skills, she was never offered a full-time position. After nearly two years, Lewis left to work at an IT help desk. Even though Lewis continued to hone and deepen her skills by taking additional computer science courses, when she would try to find a higher-level job, she was told she needed a degree. Finally, after 10 years of working help desk jobs, two professors told Lewis about LaunchCode, a nonprofit that offers paid apprenticeship placements.
LaunchCode placed Lewis with Mastercard. A supervisor there finally recognized Lewis’ potential, work ethic, and leadership, all of which mattered more than a degree. It took just two months for Mastercard to offer Lewis a full-time systems engineer position. After a year she was promoted; a year later she moved up again.
“Mentorship is great, but sponsorship is more important,” Lewis says. “My supervisor at Mastercard not only hired me, he got me into the room and into training. He taught me about stretch goals. Having somebody vouch for you, who understands you, changes your world.”
About the time Lewis was matriculating in Michigan, Brandy Grace was balancing college with work and young motherhood in Utah. Eventually the competing priorities became too much and Grace left school. At 20, she went to work part-time in the Millard County auditor’s office.
Grace was eager to contribute and learn new skills. As a result, she rose quickly and, by 27, was elected county auditor. She served there for 20 years before moving to the Utah Association of Counties (UAC) in 2016, when her lack of a degree nearly cost her a job.
When UAC’s CEO left in 2019, Grace was the obvious choice. She knew the organization and its audiences, had the right skills, and even had served as the UAC’s volunteer president when she was county auditor.
But the job description said UAC’s CEO needed a degree.
Fortunately, the UAC selection committee recognized this condition would preclude Grace. It dropped the degree requirement, and Grace won the nationwide search for CEO.
Grace spoke at a December 2022 press conference where Utah Gov. Spencer Cox announced he was dropping degree requirements for the vast majority of state jobs. Ninety-eight percent of Utah’s 1,080 different classified jobs now do not require a degree. Grace said that day she let go of the stigma that followed her despite her success.
“I always had this feeling of shame,” Grace says. “I was now able to be proud of what I have accomplished without a degree.”
The UAC and Utah are not the only employers rethinking the degree bias. In fact, an Indeed survey found 59% of employers would consider dropping these requirements.
Many already have.
Across the Political Spectrum, from Startups to Major Corporations, Employers Embrace Ending Degree Requirements
Fortune 500 companies, startups, and nonprofits all have found success by dropping degree requirements. And even though partisanship abounds on almost every other issue, Democrats and Republicans have both rushed to embrace this trend.
Between 2017 and 2019, 46% of middle-skill and 31% of high-skill occupations experienced declines in degree requirements, according to a 2022 Harvard Business School (HBS) and Burning Glass Institute study, reversing a decades-long trend where employers relied more heavily on degrees to determine an applicant’s fitness for a job. That pattern accelerated during the pandemic. Today, job listings for paralegals, e-commerce assistants, and sales agents are less likely to mention college degrees. Banks are even dropping this condition for personal financial advisors.
Bank of America, Dell and Delta Airlines are among the corporations that have eliminated degree requirements for significant portions of their workforces. IBM and Accenture require degrees for only 29% and 43% of their IT jobs, respectively.
In 2020, Public Service Enterprise Group Inc., an energy company, created its Accelerated Mobility program. Part of this initiative includes reviewing job descriptions with hiring managers to determine if the degree requirements can be eliminated and replaced with experience or a set of skills.
In June 2020 then-President Donald Trump signed an executive order that directed the federal government to de-emphasize college degrees and assess applicants’ skills instead. This order was one of the few President Joe Biden kept in place when he took over the White House.
In March 2022, then-Gov. Larry Hogan made Maryland the first state to eliminate degree requirements for most government jobs. Applicants could now substitute relevant work experience, military training, or educational courses for a degree. Overnight, applicants with a high school diploma and three years of relevant experience became eligible for positions like administrative officer, which earns an $80,000 annual salary.
Maryland had been facing a tight labor market and increased talent competition from the private sector. It also had become clear to the Hogan administration that a degree bias kept qualified candidates from applying. Jonathan Wolfson, Cicero Institute chief legal officer and policy director, worked on the Trump administration executive order and with the Hogan team as it implemented Maryland’s executive order. He said the state could not hire former military intelligence officers for cybersecurity positions because these applicants lacked degrees. Meanwhile, the National Security Agency was eagerly welcoming these experts.
Maryland worked with the nonprofit Opportunity@Work to vet non-degree-holding candidates for state jobs. The results were immediate. From May to August 2022, the number of people without degrees hired by the government increased 41%.
“Ending onerous college degree requirements was not just effective in creating a stronger workforce, it was also just common sense,” Hogan says. “Skills and hard work should determine success, not excessive credentialism.”
Other states followed Maryland’s lead.
In April 2023, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, signed an executive order that dropped degree requirements for jobs that reportedly pay up to $120,000 annually. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, eliminated degree requirements for 90% of state jobs. Alaska, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Utah are among the other states that no longer require degrees for many jobs.
Once workers are in the door, these employers see benefits.
Hiring based on Skills and Aptitudes Helps Employers
For employers, hiring candidates based on their individual aptitudes and skills can reduce the cost of doing business while expanding the pool of people whose unique perspectives can enhance a company’s competitiveness in today’s world. Focusing on a person’s unique talents also has important social benefits.
Turnover costs are a constant pressure for employers, and dropping degree requirements can alleviate this stress. Employers believe non-degree workers with experience outpace recent college graduates when it comes to time to reach full productivity, absenteeism, and likelihood to leave for a competitor, according to a Harvard Business School and Accenture study.
Dropping degree requirements boosts employee loyalty and satisfaction and, according to Lewis, now an advocate for the practice, helps companies respond to the changing demographics and demands of their customer base. Rethinking these conditions also creates a more agile workforce since employers will have more awareness of the scope of abilities and motivations their employees have, enabling them to mobilize the right workers when new business opportunities arise.
Similarly, ending degree mandates produces candidates more suited to the work needed. When employers can no longer use degrees as a proxy for perceived qualifications, they must get specific about what they really need.
Failing to get granular in job descriptions also could hinder inclusion efforts, says Dr. Katie Brown. Brown’s rapidly expanding startup, EnGen, connects immigrants, refugees, and multilingual adults with English skills needed to access pathways to jobs in high-demand fields.
When Brown sits down with her clients to go through job descriptions, she finds they need to see themselves in every single bullet point listed or they won’t apply. That means if they have all of the required attributes, but not the degree, they will doubt themselves. Words like “rock star” and “self-starter” also are too vague.
“If we know we have systemic barriers, why are we putting something that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars in between a person and a job?” Brown says. “The easiest thing an employer can do to do the right thing is make sure job descriptions match the actual skills needed.”
Dropping Degree Requirements is Just the Beginning. How to Adopt an Innovative Talent Strategy
The 2022 HBS and Burning Glass report estimates dropping degree conditions could open 1.4 million jobs to workers without degrees over five years.
So, where should employers start?
Shifting away from degree requirements is not just a matter of deleting a line from a job description. The Cicero Institute’s Wolfson, who has worked with nearly a dozen states and the federal government to move toward skills-based hiring, said it helps to think of the change as a culture shift rather than a practical rewrite of thousands of job descriptions.
“Managers or hiring professionals could always hire someone without a degree, but it was hard work to justify that decision,” Wolfson explains. “Start by flipping the mindset to having to justify a degree requirement. If you can’t explain why a degree is necessary, drop it.”
Wolfson recommends HR teams immediately engage with the managers to which an applicant will report since they know what attributes are needed to be successful.
EnGen’s Brown recommends “throwing away” the previous job descriptions and keeping descriptions short. Building upon previous listings risks redundancies and holding onto outdated requirements.
Brown says this approach ensures her startup finds applicants who are mission aligned and have the type of lived experiences that will help them connect with the refugees and immigrants EnGen serves.
To help ensure it attracts a diverse array of qualified candidates, Whiteboard Advisors, a mission-driven communications, research, and consulting firm, adds these lines to all job descriptions: “Research suggests that women and Black, Indigenous, or People of color may self-select out of opportunities if they don’t meet 100% of the job requirements. In response to this, we encourage all individuals who believe they have the skills necessary to thrive at Whiteboard Advisors to apply for open roles.”
Whiteboard also omits phrases like “a college degree or” since non-degree holders may interpret that language as a preference for a degree.
Molly Blankenship and David Newsome, directors in Jobs for the Future’s (JFF) Employer Mobilization Practice, suggest employers identify the largest volume roles, the ones hardest to fill, and the one for which there is high turnover or dissatisfaction and use JFF’s Skills Based Journey Map to guide non-degree holders to success. Blankenship and Newsome, who have worked with hundreds of employers to implement new hiring practices, remind partners to not forget to examine internal hiring notices as well.
Other steps employers should consider include:
- Changing filters used during applicant screening.
- Educating degree-holding employees whose positions will no longer require a degree about why the shift is being made.
- Establishing employee resource groups for nontraditional hires and their allies.
- Tracking outcomes to ensure new processes are working.
- Generating best practices and examples of success hiring managers can share with new applicants.
- Partnering with community organizations, educators, and other stakeholders to create talent pipelines.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta has examined the importance of several of these steps. The Markle Foundation and U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation also offer resources for employers building new hiring systems and talent pipeline programs.
Ending the degree bias is only the first step toward embracing a hiring mindset based on the aptitudes, mindset, and demonstrated skills of job seekers.
“Just getting someone in the front door is nice,” Newsome says. “To really deliver on the business promise of skills-based talent practices, you need to make sure multiple opportunities for learning are present.”
When IBM announced in January 2021 that it had eliminated college degree requirements for more than half its workforce, the company pledged to advocate for public policies to expand career-oriented skills and training pathways, including allowing part-time students and mid-career professionals to use Pell Grants for apprenticeships, internships, or community college classes. IBM said it would invest in creating its own apprenticeships, training opportunities, and hybrid education models.
For Utah’s Gov. Cox, eliminating the degree bias was part of a larger agenda. A champion of apprenticeships, Gov. Cox also created a “returnship” initiative, which gives individuals re-entering the workforce after an absence — for military service or family caretaking, for example — the chance to gain current and relevant experience. He established an “Adopt a School” initiative, which connects local employers and schools. Under the program, students gain real-world work opportunities and connect with business professionals who shape student perceptions and inform future career decisions.
“For too long society has insisted that in order to have a successful professional life, you have to go to college and that’s just not true,” Gov. Cox says. “We need to shift the paradigm and we can do this by hiring based on competencies. Degrees are important, but a degree should not be the only way to get a good paying job or have a fulfilling career.”
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