The Death of the College Degree

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Feb 21, 2023

Several states have moved to remove the requirements for college degrees from government jobs. Jobs that require licensing, such as nurses and attorneys, still demand degrees, but for many positions where people with degrees used to receive priority, that is going away.

For instance, in Pennsylvania, Governor Josh Shapiro signed an executive order titled “Creating Opportunities by Prioritizing Work Experience for State Government Jobs.” Meanwhile, Utah governor Spencer Cox said, “Degrees have become a blanketed barrier to entry in too many jobs. Instead of focusing on demonstrated competence, the focus too often has been on a piece of paper. We are changing that.”

A Change That May Not Produce Much Change

An HR manager in the Utah government (who wishes to remain anonymous) speculates that the state’s new policy started because someone high up wanted to hire a specific person without a degree and couldn’t. So, rather than the impetus for this being a general goal to improve things and increase the talent pool, it started with one particular person in mind.

This is often how change in business happens. For example, it wasn’t until Sheryl Sandberg, the former COO of Facebook, suffered the tragic loss of her husband that the social-media giant revised its bereavement policy to include more leave.

Likewise, one can easily imagine a hiring manager at a given company who wants to hire a candidate without a college degree. If that hiring manager has enough clout, rules will bend.

Regardless, the Utah government HR manager believes that degree requirements in her area haven’t changed, explaining that “all entry-level positions in our branch either say X years of relevant professional experience for those that truly do not need a degree or X years of relevant professional experience or degree + X years experience.” For these roles, a lack of degree is not a deal-breaker.

In other words, there was already a great deal of flexibility in hiring. It’s just now become official policy. And so it’s therefore too soon to see if there will be a significant change in the makeup of Utah state government employees.

At the same time, other observers don’t anticipate similar changes outside of states where this is the new law. “Unfortunately, I can’t say I’ve ever seen companies diminishing their reliance on college degrees, especially in the public sector,” says Travis Fagan, a senior reverse recruiter at Find My Profession. “I have one client right now looking into public-sector jobs in Charlotte, N.C., and the collegiate requirement is featured there as much as it ever was.”

Then, too, given that the number of college graduates continues to grow, it may not make much of a difference whether companies or governments require degrees.

If Not Degrees, What?

College degrees are simply proxies for education and understanding. A degree indicates that a group of professors agreed that you were competent in whichever skills they tested for. It also shows that you can stick with something for four years.

But with grade inflation continuing to reduce the value of a degree, employers need to look at things other than if the box for “bachelor’s degree” is checked off to gauge whether candidates have the fundamental knowledge, skills, and abilities to fulfill jobs.

Headhunter Nick Corcodilos prefers proper reference checks to degrees as an indicator of performance and ability. He explains: “I have always done reference checks myself on all my candidates before I send them to a client employer. I want to know whether what the candidate has on their resume and the claims they make are confirmed by people they’ve worked with. If the references conflict with any assumptions I might make based on the resume or the degree, it’s no dice. I’ve placed people with no degree who are stars, more expert than degreed people. And I’ve tossed out candidates with good degrees but poor references.”

Plus, with the rise of artificial intelligence helping candidates write resumes and cover letters, prioritizing interview answers and references can help select the right candidates better than educational background.

Indeed, many companies turn to pre-employment testing to determine if an individual has the skills needed for a role. Additionally, candidates can gain skills through classes outside a college setting. Grow Google, for instance, offers specific training for technical and other skills. Broader organizations, such as Udemy, offer courses in all areas. Even Harvard offers a series of free lessons. The difference is that you don’t get an accredited degree with these courses, even though you can often get much of the same knowledge.

Steven Lowell, also a senior reverse recruiter at Find My Profession, says he’s noticed that degrees are not as important in tech and media. And sure enough, companies like Intel and Google, have publicly stated that they are deprioritizing degrees for many roles. Nevermind that many of tech’s top leaders never earned degrees. Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg, and Daniel Ek “are success stories of leaders without college degrees, and they make (or it a practice within their companies to not require a degree,” Lowell explains.

Ultimately, it may be only a matter of time before the trend of abolishing college-degree requirements catches up to more industries.

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