Why Do Employers Require College Degrees?

Rick Hess, Director of Education Studies for the American Enterprise Institute, is one of the best-known and most prolific voices on education in the country. He has recently started releasing short videos on various hot-button issues in education, which you can find through his Twitter feed, https://twitter.com/rickhess99.

One of his recent videos focused on the dilemma of employers requiring college degrees, particularly when those degrees aren’t aligned with the level of skill required for a specific job. He notes that nearly two-thirds of employers have admitted rejecting applicants who had the required skills and experience for a job, simply because they lacked a four-year degree; he further highlights the fact that employers are now requiring college degrees for jobs that previously did not require them, even though the knowledge and skills required to do those jobs hasn’t changed. Of course, requiring candidates to earn unneeded college degrees takes a tremendous toll on them, with people spending tens of thousands of dollars (or more!) and years of their lives in order to earn these credentials.

While colleges benefit the most from this model, Hess notes that they actually weren’t the drivers of this trend. It was actually caused by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which stated that applicants cannot be discriminated against based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It did, however, allow employers to use professionally developed hiring tests, as long as those could be proven to not be discriminatory. As a result, employers began using educational status (i.e., college degrees), as an approved way of screening candidates, avoiding the legal challenges that may be associated with other kinds of employment tests.

Certainly, college degrees do indicate a certain baseline of ability – the ability to read and communicate, to take instruction, and to persevere on a task. However, it would be naïve to say that there aren’t discriminatory implications: This requirement benefits those with higher high school and college graduation rates, and the cost and commitment involved means that the more affluent have an advantage. It can also prevent young people from being hired for entry-level jobs that don’t actually require a college degree (but still carry that as a requirement to hiring).

Fortunately, this is changing: some highly visible companies, like Google and Apple, no longer require college degrees, realizing the lack of correlation between those degrees and success on the job. (And on a personal note, I can say that NC3T does not require them either, preferring to look for relevant experience and ability.) However, this move away for college degrees is going to come slowly, given the veneer of safety that it provides. We should do what we can to inform employers of the value of CTE and the kinds of credentials that actually prove ability.

Brett Pawlowski is Executive Vice President of NC3T, the National Center for College and Career Transitions (www.nc3t.com). NC3T provides planning, coaching, technical assistance and tools to help community-based leadership teams plan and implement their college-career pathway systems and strengthen employer connections with education.

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