Companies can drop degree requirements, but they still don't know how to hire without them

If businesses really want to be inclusive, they'll need to change more than a diploma requirement
Companies can drop degree requirements, but they still don't know how to hire without them
Photo: Denis Balibouse (Reuters)
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Employers that are trying to expand their talent pools and hire inclusively amid a labor shortage are rethinking their job requirements. Since last year, companies including Kellogg’s, General Motors, and Bank of America have nixed a four-year degree mandate for some roles, opening up job opportunities to those without a college diploma, which make up more than 60% of American adults. Governments are trying it, too: US states including Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Utah have also dropped degree requirements from thousands of public-sector jobs.

But getting rid of a degree requirement doesn’t guarantee that those formerly excluded from the hiring pool actually get the job. If they really want to be inclusive, advocates say, hiring practices and team cultures have got to change.

Eliminating the requirement is just step one, according to Blair Corcoran de Castillo, a senior director at Opportunity@Work, which advocates for redesigned hiring practices. “Just removing a degree requirement in a job description doesn’t make it go to [someone without a degree], so they have to think about their recruitment strategies in a different way,” she says.

The “paper ceiling” shuts out more than half of the workforce

The problem of degree inflation, or the widespread practice of unnecessarily requiring a degree for a role, locks millions of qualified workers out of well-paying jobs and benefits and blocks them from promotions—a problem Opportunity@Work calls “the paper ceiling.

While 70% of US jobs require a bachelor’s degree, less than half of the workforce has one. And the effects of degree inflation are distributed disproportionately: Requiring a degree eliminates 76% of Black workers, 83% of Latinx workers, 81% of rural workers, and almost 70% of veterans from talent pools.

Companies are adding job requirements faster than they’re subtracting them. In 2022, the nonprofit advocacy group Generation surveyed companies that employ tech workers across industries and around the world. “Despite the public dialogue about the importance of skills-based hiring, the majority of companies have actually been increasing their work experience requirements and their education background requirements over the last three years,” says Mona Mourshed, its founding CEO. While some employers have been getting attention for eliminating degree requirements, the global trend is moving in the opposite direction.

The four-year degree as a proxy

“Requiring a four-year degree is a habit that companies have fallen into over the last 15 years. We saw this emerge out of the 2008 recession,” says Elyse Rosenblum, managing director and founder at Grads of Life, which works with employers to promote skills-based hiring. “The labor market was such that companies could pick and choose, and they started layering on four-year degree requirements with the idea that it was a robust proxy for things they wanted in their workforce.”

That proxy was thought to represent both technical and soft skills, but job performance doesn’t support that assumption. Employers often report that workers without degrees perform nearly or equally well as those who have degrees. Plus, degree requirements tend to follow the pulse of the job market. When labor is hard to come by, employers relax requirements, and when they have their pick, they tighten them again. It’s a pattern that researchers have labeled opportunistic (pdf), and an indication that degrees aren’t necessary to perform those jobs at all.

Employers also overvalue skills associated with college degrees when on-the-job experience is much more useful, others add. “How much did any of us know when we were 22?” says Nitzan Pelman, CEO at workforce training organization Climb Hire. “You learn so much on the job about how to act, how to behave, and how to be a professional from watching other people.”

All candidates have something to learn, says Corcoran de Castillo. “No candidate has all the skills and experience they need. Every job I’ve been in, I’ve had to learn because every organization is different and every mission is different.”

Without degrees, employers struggle to evaluate applicants

Those who study hiring and employment say that lack of evaluation standards beyond the college degree is holding up widespread adoption of skills-based hiring. Employers that remove degree requirements can simply replace it with more conditions—or continue to favor those with four-year diplomas.

Generation’s study found that in addition to degrees, 40% of employers are increasing the number of behavioral skill requirements. Candidates are now subject to more job screening steps than in the past, like background checks, personality tests, skill evaluations, panel interviews, candidate presentations, and drug tests. “[Candidate evaluation] is still a work in progress for the field. There’s not a standard,” says Rosenblum. “That’s part of what’s slowing this transition.”

New qualifications, no degree required

But standards are in progress. While their ideas have yet to catch on broadly, think tanks and academics are coming up with new systems that take degrees out of the equation. For one, LERs, or learning and employment records, might solve the problem. The idea is that workers build a digital “wallet” of skills and experience gained through paid work, volunteer positions, training, and traditional education.

The nonprofit Education Design Lab has designed a program for “micro-credentialing,” a kind of digital certification of soft skills. And in 2020, researchers at MIT partnered with the US Department of Education to develop open software for digital credential wallets. Salesforce also runs a micro-credentialing program for its products, or “bite-size continuing education programs” that can be used to level-up sales skills, with or without formal education.

LERs in their myriad forms have not been widely adopted, and there’s no governance over these systems, but they have been the subject of case studies, and much enthusiasm, around the world.

How Buffer evaluates job applicants, no degree required

Social media tech company Buffer has never required degrees for employees. Though it doesn’t officially track credentials, the company estimates that roughly 6% of them don’t have a college degree.

Buffer’s head of communications and content, Hailley Griffis, wrote about how she screened applications for a content writer position. Social media thrives on brevity, so applicants were asked to keep all answers short. “We wanted to test applicants on whether they could condense their ideas, which is an important skill for this position,” she writes.

Griffis sifted applicants based on their writing samples, understanding of Buffer and its industry, and alignment with company values. “I learned that you can’t just assess writers based on their resumes. I really need to assess them based on their writing,” she tells Quartz.

Changing a culture that favors the four-year degree

In addition to their hiring practices, companies need to also change their culture. Professionals who don’t have a four-year degree often say that they’re made to work harder to get jobs and keep them, even by companies excited to ditch diplomas.

“You’re constantly having to prove that even though I don’t have this degree, I am willing to learn this position, and I’m really interested in this,” says Celeste Staggers-Elmore, who has worked in tech since 2021 for companies including Google and the autonomous vehicle company Cruise. “Your passion really has to outshine your competition.”

Christina Ward, the VP at a small independent book publisher, got her start in tech in the late 1990s, and describes the experience as demeaning. “I was considered lesser because I was a woman. I didn’t have a degree; I was working-class,” she says. “All of those things start trickling down, and I was devalued as a worker and as a person.”

Even in her current field, Ward feels the difference. There’s a lot of talk about expensive MFA degrees—that’s a master’s of fine arts in creative writing—that are so common among publishing professionals today. When someone asks what MFA program she attended, Ward says her hackles go up. “The mentality in publishing is that you paid so much to gain entry into this club, so we can’t let in anybody who hasn’t paid their entry fee,” she says.

In some cases, lack of a degree makes them a target for discrimination. Staggers-Elmore describes being singled out and treated like a charity case. “My boss touted the first time I got hired, like, ‘Look at these people we hired. They don’t have college degrees, but they’re here to work with us.’”

It’s a cautionary tale for companies: If you want to hire workers from all kinds of backgrounds, including educational ones, you’re also responsible for supporting those employees once they arrive.

And if employers don’t find a way to hire and keep workers with varied backgrounds, they won’t remain globally competitive businesses, says Corcoran de Castillo. “Those who can adapt their hiring processes to the future of work and these new roles and skills will be really better able to navigate the future economy,” she adds.