Employers, hire more people without college degrees, says the New York Times

Do employers require too many college degrees from applicants?

The New York Times now thinks so.  An editorial today – not from a single author, but from the paper’s entire editorial board – calls on employers to be more open to would-be workers without higher education credentials.

Let me walk you through the argument, in part because it’s behind a paywall, and also because the points it makes are significant.

New York Times logo

The editorial begins by noting – accurately – that the American economy often punishes people for not having any college credentials.  “[T]he earnings gap between those with a college education and those without one has never been wider.”  The column connects this with rising higher ed prices.  “[T]he cost of college spirals upward, putting it out of reach for many.”

In response, employers should reduce reliance on degrees and instead be more open to those without them.  The Times casts this as a humane, humanitarian gesture, one which:

demonstrates both good policy and good leadership, representing a concrete change in hiring philosophy that stops reducing people to a credential and conveys that everyone — college-educated or not — has experience and worth that employers should consider.

The editorial then adds the recent low unemployment level and tight labor market as a reason. “Public and private employers have been struggling to find qualified applicants, prompting a re-evaluation of hiring criteria.”  So reducing reliance on academic degrees will make it easier to staff positions.

Such a transformation in hiring practices would benefit society, continues the piece, first by helping us address big problems: “If the United States can’t find ways to tap into all of this [undercredentialed] talent, we will not be able to solve our most urgent problems, like climate change and pandemic preparedness.”  More, opening up hiring could improve American politics and society:

Too many Americans see our society and economy as profoundly unfair, set up to serve the needs of well-connected elites and providing more benefits to people who went to college or know how to work the system. And too many feel that political leaders don’t care about them and that government and institutions don’t work for them. Opening up jobs may seem small-bore, but it shows that government is listening and helps build trust among those who may feel unseen or looked down upon by parts of the labor market.

It could also help address discrimination based on race – “Black and Hispanic job-seekers are less likely to have bachelor’s degrees than non-Hispanic whites and Asian Americans” – and problems due to rural location: “only 25 percent of [rural Americans] hold a bachelor’s degree or higher.”

The Times’ call might fit into a rising trend.  The editorial reacts to a recent policy change by the state of Pennsylvania. That state’s move follows a similar one by Utah. Pennsylvania’s neighbor Maryland opened up hundreds of government jobs to applicants who are “qualified, nondegree candidates” nearly a year ago.  Maryland might be the first state to have done this.

And it’s not just governments taking such steps.  The editorial notes what a bunch of us have been tracking in the business world:

The private sector has been moving gradually in this direction already. Major players to embrace skill-based hiring include General Motors, Bank of America, Google, Apple and Accenture. IBM is recognized as a particular leader; about half of its U.S. job openings no longer require a four-year degree.

So why does this one editorial matter?  Several reasons.

First, the New York Times remains the leading American newspaper, the fabled “newspaper of record.”  Its editorials can both reflect and influence elite opinion.

Second, much of what the describe actually exists.  Those state and business policies are not hypotheticals.  Put another way, the Times isn’t calling for something new, but just more of policies already in the world.

Third, note the politics here.  While Maryland’s decision was made by a Republican, as was Utah’s, Pennsylvania’s leader is a Democrat, and the New York Times is reliably aligned with the latter party.  This isn’t simply or entirely a right-wing anti-intellectual push.  The Times piece notes this is, instead, a bipartisan “movement.”  You can see this in the progressive arguments it makes (anti-racism), the centrist ones (it’ll make society better), and the one which usually comes from the right (helping rural America).

Fourth, if enough employers enact such policies and hire enough would-be employees, popular demand for higher education credentials could decline.  That could further depress college and university enrollment, which has already been declining for a decade.  That in turn exerts financial pressure on institutions, the supermajority of which are tuition-dependent, and can therefore lead to program closures, staff and faculty reductions, campus closures, and mergers.

Fifth, it’s not clear to me what such a movement would mean for community colleges and associates degrees.  Would employers relax requirements for those as well?

Sixth, if the job market changes like the Times asks, I wonder if there’s room for higher education to attract students by offering more microcredentials.  People can take several classes and win a badge in (say) project management or team leading or Java proficiency, then take those microcredentials to a job without going on to win a degree.

At a broader level, I find the Times piece fitting into my peak higher education model in a quiet way.  The editorial doesn’t explicitly call for fewer people to enroll in college, but does recommend that a chunk of the population pursue careers without post-secondary experience (or credentials).  In other words, should public and private institutions heed the editorial, we shouldn’t expect an uptick in enrollment, but more of the opposite.

Which brings me to a final point.  I’ve previously written about a huge change in how Americans think about higher ed. For a generation we thought that the more people get more college experience, the better. Since 2012 or so there have been signs of that national consensus breaking down.  Now if the New York Times no longer shares that inherited model, is that shared view truly broken?


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5 Responses to Employers, hire more people without college degrees, says the New York Times

  1. I cannot argue with the points offered in the editorial, and I have been vocalizing this “single point of failure” within the HE industry for a number of years.

    What we have yet discovered from a change in such a hiring policy are the consequences of hiring non-degree employees in areas that had previously been designated as such.

    We do not know, for instance, whether non-degree employees exhibit similar patterns of resilience – a collateral outcome of four years of sustained study to completion. Do non-degree employees value continuous education and training as an intrinsically useful method of sustaining their relevance in an organization? Do non-degree students demonstrate the ability to adapt to a wide range working relationships that can sometimes be asymmetric in their power dynamics (like the various student-instructor dynamics one might encounter over four+ years in HE)? Will a non-degree candidate comprehend the meaning of diversity as well as a degreed candidate who spent four years with people from all walks of life?

    IMHO, it isn’t quite as simple as “equivalencing” two metrics of qualification because we say they should be, no matter the necessity. We put our military candidates through hell because we presume that the collateral effects of such military training will be useful beyond the knowledge and skills they learn. While HE is not quite the same as military training, we know that HE institutions do more than provide instruction.

    • Victor Villegas says:

      Hello Steve. As a someone who does not have a 4 year degree and works at a R1 university, I’d be happy to answer your questions.

      “Do non-degree employees value continuous education and training as an intrinsically useful method of sustaining their relevance in an organization?”

      Yes. As a professional faculty at my university, I absolutely value continuous education and training to sustain my relevance within the organization. I train faculty and staff, many of whom are degree holders, and I must say, there are many who’s commitment to on going education stopped the minute they obtained their degree. Having a degree, or the lack thereof, does not correlate with the desire to improve one’s self, either for their own betterment or their employer.

      “Do non-degree students demonstrate the ability to adapt to a wide range working relationships that can sometimes be asymmetric in their power dynamics?”

      Of course. Power dynamics and adapting to them are not exclusive to higher ed. As someone without a 4 year degree. I have had to navigate, adapt, and respond to power dynamics and build relationships with people who have much more authority and power than myself. Now that I work at a university, the ability to do so is invaluable, and I did not need HE experience to do so.

      “Will a non-degree candidate comprehend the meaning of diversity as well as a degreed candidate who spent four years with people from all walks of life?”

      Wow. To think that HE is the only place someone can come in contact with and engage people from all walks of life is a bit condescending, don’t you think? As a Latino and DEI advocate and champion, I fully comprehend the meaning of diversity, and it is not all about race and gender, which many in HE mainly focus on. HE is probably one of the least diverse systems I have experienced, especially when it comes to the idea that one needs a degree to be considered capable, competent and successful. I truly believe that requiring degrees for jobs, in many cases, is inherently racist. The system was set up to be exclusionary, another example of privilege, a system which, more often than not, has led to work discrimination for BIPOC. I can’t tell you how many times I have not even been given a chance to prove myself or have been held back because I do not have a 4 year degree. This, despite often having more experience, skill and knowledge than other applicants and even those doing the hiring.

      As I have mentioned, I work at a university and was able to get to this position through hard work, a dedication to continued learning and plenty of resilience, without a 4 year degree. So, I am a prime example that yes, there are people such as myself that can accomplish what you are questioning, without a degree. It might take us longer but, that is often due to degree discrimination, not lack of capability or experience.

      Is HE and degree obtainment valuable? Of course, but it’s not for everyone. It is certainly not the only way to build resilience, sustain one’s relevance in an organization, adapt to asymmetric power dynamics and comprehend the meaning of diversity. Possibly not even the best way.

      I believe in multi-pathways to career and life success. One is not better than any other. Some jobs absolutely should require them, but not most. Each individual should be able decide for themselves what they wish to do and who they want to be. Let people be evaluated on their individual merits, experience and knowledge. THAT would be true diversity.

      • Thank you for your extensive thought on these questions. I believe you are interpreting my prior post as a subordination of non-degreed candidates. Not so. Allow me to elaborate.

        As to whether my comment about DEI was condescending, take into consideration that I grew up in the NYC metro area (in a Black neighborhood) then went to college in rural southern Indiana where there was ZERO diversity in both the community and the college. I currently work in New Hampshire where (again) there is very very little diversity.

        It is very much conceivable that a person can emerge into young adulthood and do years of adult employment and never encounter much diversity. While a college campus is no guarantee of diversity either, at least there is a culture that strives for it.

        As an aside, I was several credits short of earning my BA when an entry-level job offer interrupted my studies (and online education did not yet exist). 17 years later, I had worked my a** off but needed to change careers, but still had not completed my BA. I applied to multiple staff positions at Syracuse University in their TV studios for which I was well-qualified, but alas, without the BA, I was never even considered for a first interview. Even the HE industry has a legacy of being prejudicial against non-degree candidates.

        I do not deny that it is possible to be well-qualified as a non-degree candidate (I was one). The question here is which environments are conducive to producing a wide breadth of interpersonal experiences, practice in adult responsibilities and discipline (showing up on time and doing the assigned work without being paid), and intermingling with people from all walks of life on the same plain of struggle? Obviously, I don’t have the data to draw a firm conclusion one way or the other, nor does any of this negate your personal experience. However, employers, as a convention, appear to have greater confidence that a candidate “ran the gauntlet” as they did, and that means something beyond the degree itself.

        I have been in both positions as a non-degreed and a “schooled” person and the difference in perception is real. I am NOT saying it is impossible nor unlikely that a non-degreed candidate can present with the wisdom of a degreed person. Rather, it is possible that, under the right circumstances (as in my own case), a non-degreed candidate can have more wisdom that any other degreed candidate.

        However, I AM saying that a person who endures four years of intense commitment to a degree completion will be perceived differently since the college experience is an institution employers understand. The non-degreed person is burdened with closing a perception gap that cannot often be conveyed in words or capital letters. The substance of that gap, IMO, collects in those I areas I first mentioned. I suppose a non-degreed candidate would need to actively articulate these experiences as part of their candidacy.

  2. Could this be a form of “Quiet Firing?” (https://www.cnbc.com/2022/09/30/7-signs-of-quiet-firing-to-look-for-at-work.html)

    I’ll never forget when one supervisor equated my bachelor’s degrees in education and psychology plus my NYS teaching certification to the knowledge of a co-worker who took a four-hour training on teaching.

    For better or worse, it looks like the value of a degree, in terms of value for finding employment, is fading.

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