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.
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?