College…No Longer the Golden Ticket for Employers or Employees

College was once the “golden ticket” to the American Dream of greater job security and higher lifetime wages. In the last decade, however, college enrollments have declined. According to a recent Harris poll, 51% of U.S. adults report that skyrocketing college costs have decreased their ability to pursue a post-high school education.1

Although 62% of U.S. employees 25 or older lack a college degree, some employers still use the college degree as gatekeeper when assessing which candidate to hire or promote.2 Does this work any longer, or are employers missing out on skilled employees with talent and drive because the best potential hires lacked the time and money to attend college?  

No longer the only path

Some employers, perhaps forced by the Great Resignation to seek out formerly overlooked sources of talent, have figured this out. According to the business research firm Burning Glass Institute, employers dropped or lowered their college degree requirements  for 46% or middle-skill and 31% of high-skill jobs between 2017 and 2019.3 Maryland stripped college degree requirements from thousands of job listings.4 The White House. under both Biden and Trump. ordered that education requirements for some federal jobs be dropped.5

Realizing that employers need a higher level of technological skills, Miami Dade College, Western Governors University, and other organizations are providing alternative credentials in the form of industry-recognized certificates, micro-credentials, and digital badges. Google has created a career certificate program which enables employees to attain key positions in an employer consortium that includes Deloitte, SAP, Verizon, Walmart as well as Google.1 Industry-recognized certifications require employees to learn clearly defined skills and pass an exam. Typically, these certifications can be completed within three to six months and cost between $50 and $1000.


The benefits to employers that shift away from college degree requirements? Many.

When the Society for Human Resource Management surveyed 500 U.S. executives and 1200 supervisors, the majority reported they viewed credentialed employees as better performers than those with only a traditional college degree.6

Employers that eliminate their fixation on college degrees gain access to talented individuals unable to follow the traditional four-year college route to success—those whose lives and financial ability required they head straight into the work force, and others, among them veterans and military spouses.  

Employers seeking a diverse workforce see benefits from a focus on skills rather than on college degrees. As just one example, just 26 percent of African American adults have a college degree, in contrast with 40 percent of Caucasian adults.7 As another example, I helped a client resolve an equal employment opportunity/discrimination complaint by using common sense and questioning the need for a B.A. The client had promoted a Caucasian male with a B.A. in history in preference to a Hispanic woman with an A.A. in secretarial science and years of administrative experience into a position that required high levels of ability to organize data and create systems. “Why?” I asked. “We require a college degree for all promotions,” the senior manager explained. “But which employee has the skills that fit the position?” I asked. When the client answered that question, he reversed the decision and the complaint resolved.     

Changes employers and HR need to make

What actions employers need to take?

They need to end college degrees as a gating requirement, or at the least open positions to those who have college degrees OR equivalent experience.

They need to revamp their job descriptions and specify the skills needed to succeed in key positions. Six years ago, IBM revised its job descriptions to focus on skills. Now, 50 percent of IBM’s posted U.S. positions don’t require a college degree.8

Third, they need to overhaul their automated applicant screening systems.

A college degree, once the “golden ticket” to the American Dream of greater job security and higher lifetime wages, remains valuable. Is it more valuable than the right skill set? That’s debatable.









(c) 2022 Lynne Curry

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8 thoughts on “College…No Longer the Golden Ticket for Employers or Employees

  1. While the removal of “college” requirements is encouraging news for many experienced and skilled workers and employers that had artificial hurtles to employment, I’d like to suggest its not as simple or good as it might seem.

    “College” in this context seems to be a broad association that misses the many layers of occupational, certificate and associate degree “college” training that is required for about 60% of the jobs. “College” also addresses the 25% of jobs that do require 4-8 years of preparation for work and professional credentials for necessary engineers, therapists, accountants, teachers, researchers, doctors, therapists, economists, etc.

    Alaska is struggling with this mismatch in understanding the necessary role of post secondary education/training whether through military, vocational, apprenticeship, or “college” routes; and the “college” of a four year degree that may not be relevant for the jobs that someone may actually enjoy and find rewarding. In Alaska the AlaskaCAN 65×2025 program is trying to hep more people understand the need for these skilled workers and the living wage opportunities these jobs offer with different levels of education.

    But before this sounds like I’m not supporting four year degrees, let me offer that I think the three best degrees I’ve ever found are geology, anthropology, and geography. Even for hiring in technical organizations. Why that is, would be the topic of a blog post rather than comment… but these folks get the “brain training” to think in the way these disciplines develop, and are the very people who will best succeed later when they get their industry “Google” credentials.. not because those industry credentials were all that was ever needed, but because they were training to think in ways that are valuable and will be needed as we move ahead in the machine age.

    In the future we will increasingly see that easy to learn transactional skills will become obsolete and better done by machines… what remains for humans will be the work that requires more than short term Linkedin Certs and skills that have a short half-life and need to be replaced with the next cert class. That work will include a wide range of post secondary education, and in many cases some level of “college”.

    1. Ky, completely agree with your core points about “brain training,” and that will be the topic of my September 13th post, though in a surprising way. Meanwhile, thank you as always for your insightful and valuable comments.

    2. Yours is an excellent discussion. Learning how to ‘think, research and write’ is exceptionally important; those skills apply to most tasks or working situations. Supervisors – usually advanced-level workers who know the job and are now elevated to the position to direct lower-skilled workers doing the same job – NEED to be able to out-think, plan-ahead, and explain clearly to those they supervise.
      But “college degree” is a rather loose ‘standard’ when a Liberal Arts Degree might be the ‘key to the promotion’ for a job that has NOTHING in common with their degree program learning; or a degree in Geology would probably be grossly inadequate – but meet the ‘standard’ – for a elementary school teacher position.

  2. For over a decade, I have had parents and young students approaching graduation ask me for career advice. I tell them that a trade can provide for them anywhere in the world, however a college degree not so much. I tell them (truthfully) that some doctor friends of mine have complained about how much their electricians, plumbers, and carpenters charge them, yet when I remind them of the extreme costs of healthcare, they continue their rants against the trades. Guess it depends on which side of the fence one resides……

  3. Great summary of the issues. No long is much of anything a ticket to the American Dream. The American Dream is exiting and slipping away from the masses. And even the elites’ children may not get it. Things are pretty much a mess right now, and there’s way too much denial about where we are, and way too much blame for the wrong things on the wrong people. It’s a lot more complicated than the ranters and ravers can see.

  4. I am SOOO with you on this subject. I’m a Type A, Classic High School Dropout! The ultimate kind. I dropped out of High School on my 16th birthday – the very day I was eligible to do it.
    I entered into a Trade High School program the following school year and was performing in the ‘mechanical aspects’ of the curriculum at the second year level within three months of starting school. And/but I dropped out of that one after the first few months of the next (sophmore) school year.
    Then I entered the U.S. Air Force under a program that allowed ‘lower achieving students’ (read ‘dropouts’) to enter. When I took the entry/qualification tests I scored 98, 97, 97, 98…duh! But I was labeled a dropout and low achiever.
    During my first few months in the USAF, I passed my HS Equivalency exams and got my GED. And I passed every test they threw at me, including nuclear safety – a subject I had little knowledge about, but the test/questions/answers reeked of common-sense solutions (don’t push the red button; stay clear of suspicious items, etc.). And I passed all of the tests for the first, second and third levels of performance/skills/knowledge for the craft in the time many only passed the first. Did I mention I was a HS dropout?!
    I eventually got out of the USAF and entered into the civilian workforce. I excelled at numerous crafts, including the one that was my USAF Specialty. I eventually entered that career field and climbed the ladder there quickly. The ‘entry barrier’ for that was HS Diploma or GED. I ended up getting a A.A. degree within three years of working there. Uh, oh, but I was a High School dropout!
    Since then I’ve been a Vocational School instructor for 10 years, achieved a Board of Certified Safety Professionals (BCSP) Construction and Health Safety Technician (CHST) and Certified Safety Trainer/Certified Industrial Trainer certifications. But I was a High School dropout.
    Some people can be very well educated, yet ignorant enough in skills and experience to not be able to figure out how to pour urine out of a boot, with the instructions written on the heel; others can design, build, deliver, fit, and sell the boots. I’ll take one of the latter any time over the former.
    Any time ‘a college degree’ is the entry barrier – and/but it is acceptable to have a Social Sciences degree to gain preference for a mechanical skills job, or a degree in Music qualifying someone for a job in supply-chain jobs, the world is skewed and screwed. (disclaimer – I’m not picking on SS or Music, but pointing out the huge disparity in skills/knowledge/experience between the tasks and ‘open for interpretation’ qualifications)
    Many of the BEST PERFORMERS are disqualified because of some low-level qualification deficiency – that doesn’t even matter; and some of the POOREST PERFORMERS are accepted as qualified or hired/promoted because of completely irrelevant experience and achievements.

  5. I have a college degree. My manager told me I wasn’t going to get the job I have the experience for without the piece of paper. Fast forward to today, as an HR professional I would take a person with experience in the position before a person with a degree who doesn’t have any work experience.
    What is the worth of a college degree if you have received a degree in something that isn’t applicable to the work you do? I have a friend who I went to college with, both of us were single mothers at the time and I asked her what her degree was in. She told me and I asked her, how are you going to use that for your career? Why would you pay for education that isn’t applicable to the future you want or the skills you need? She told me she hadn’t thought about it like that.

    The money the government is using for loan forgiveness has a lot of hoops and hurdles that you have to go through. By the time you have completed the forms and jumped through everything you have to go through – some are finding they did it all for nothing. They didn’t qualify for relief under the program; maybe rightfully so.

    I believe that any educator whose student population is made up of a majority of minority or impoverished students should qualify for loan forgiveness during the time they are teaching in those classrooms. Why? Because those are the hardest classrooms to fill. Starting salaries for teachers coming out of college is low, surprisingly low. Isn’t it interesting to think about how we compensate the ones who are in charge of educating those who hold our future in their hands, and they have a college degree, sometimes a Master’s. Talk about things that make you hmm.

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