Massachusetts removes college degree requirements from most state jobs

Over the past year at least a dozen American states have taken a very interesting step.  They have removed a college degree requirement for applicants to some or most state jobs.  It’s a way of helping people “break the paper ceiling,” of advancing without needing to have postsecondary education credentials.  Examples include Alaska, California, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania (and Philadelphia), South Dakota, Utah, Virginia.

Now Massachusetts has joined them. (alternative link)

Governor Maura Healey filed an executive order on Thursday to ensure most state government job listings do not include degree requirements and hiring managers use a “skills-based” approach when picking candidates to fill open positions.

Skills-based instead of credential-driven: that’s an important shift.

Healey announced this decision during a speech to Associated Industries of Massachusetts on Thursday, in part to spur companies to rethink their approaches to hiring. She noted that career success shouldn’t be limited to the portion of the state’s population — nearly half, per a recent census count — with a bachelor’s degree.

Did you catch that last point, about almost 50% of the state having a degree? In fact, Walletbub just determined that Massachusetts was the most educated state in America. And that state now set aside those educational requirements at scale.

I don’t want to overstate this decision. After all, Massachusetts employs fewer than 50,000 people (source) so we’re not overhauling the state’s labor force.  At the same time, nothing in the governor’s decision prevents people with degrees for applying to state positions.  Moreover, the states which have taken such steps number not even one third of the lot; a majority of American states still require postsecondary sheepskin for public jobs.  A powerful reason for those decisions is the currently low unemployment level; when that rises, perhaps these states will reverse their positions.

And yet I think this is noteworthy.  It stands opposed to the inherited “college for all idea,” instead viewing non-academic achievement as on par with college or university degrees.  It may encourage other organizations to do the same – other states, businesses, nonprofits – to similarly downgrade reliance on postsecondary attainment.  As word of these shifts gets out it might depress college enrollment to a degree.

Note, too, that this isn’t a partisan move.  Republicans and Democrats alike seem equally fond of the idea so far, even in our hyperpolarized times.  It’s easy to find examples of this, starting with how the state leaders who have taken this step are members of both parties. A bipartisan pair of governors urged others to reduce college requirements.  While the conservative National Review praised the strategy, so did Barack Obama:

Here’s an example of a smart policy that gets rid of unnecessary college degree requirements and reduces barriers to good paying jobs. I hope other states follow suit!

Let’s keep an eye on this trend.  As 2024’s elections ratchet up, this could become a partisan issue.  Or it might just continue with more governors deciding to open up public jobs beyond academic achievement.  Is the college for all consensus shattering?


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4 Responses to Massachusetts removes college degree requirements from most state jobs

  1. Mark Spradley says:

    I have a friend, in his nineties now, who oversaw the Dole pineapple plantation on Mindanao in the Philippines, the largest pineapple plantation in the world, from its inception in the middle ’60s for the next decade. There were so many job applications that they required a bachelor’s degree for all positions, from field hands to those who rolled the sheet metal into cans for the cannery. With full employment, that wouldn’t have been necessary, but to get IMF loans, the Philippines had to put a priority on fighting inflation over fighting unemployment.

    Colleges have done more than their share to push inflation up, and with unemployment falling to new lows, it becomes obvious that credentialism is merely a screening device. Milton Friedman thought all credentials should be done away with. Unqualified doctors, for instance, would be weeded out by malpractice law suits.

    Some professions need screening devices, others don’t. But college for everyone has come to mean that every kid deserves the “college experience.” If the party and sports aspects of college were done away with, those actually devoted to pursuing an education could do it at a fraction of the cost.

    I could go on, but access to the college experience vs access to a skill and a job is driven by economics. The move away from certification is being driven more by necessity than choice.

    • Glen McGhee says:

      I liked the Dole pineapple story, but lost the thread at this point:
      “to get IMF loans, the Philippines had to put a priority on fighting inflation over fighting unemployment” What was the connection between “inflation” and using credentials to hire by? As you say, one of the function of degrees is to structure pay-scales into a pyramid, and if NO ONE had a degree, they would all be paid LOW wages, and this would bring DOWN inflation (suppress wages).

      “Colleges have done more than their share to push inflation up” with rising tuition, fees, etc., and we need to add to this “credential inflation” because advanced degrees are always more expansive than the vanilla version, right?
      I also agree with the focus on the hiring (“screening”) process as driving credentialism — employers *are* the ones using advanced degrees earned by job applicants to “screen” them (colleges love the inflationary spiral of schooling) even though the jobs *themselves* not require add-on credentials to competently perform the job — most training is OJT, on-the-job.
      But we’re all professionals now, and there is no “profession” without exclusionary “screening” devices. Any “profession” that does not rely on a public ritual of some kind to justify excluding applicants would fade quickly, I am afraid. This is what guilds like the AMA and Bar Association have been very good at over the decades. Maintaining status and prestige through exclusionary membership practices.
      The words “low unemployment” are misleading, especially with 40% (or more) graduates in underemployment situations — including 15% underemployment for STEM. Graduates are not finding jobs that use the skills they learned, and that’s a huge problem.
      I want to generalize by saying that although transitioning youth into adult roles in society has become unacceptably dysfunctional, in every way imaginable, no solution has presented itself, and the problem will only get worse.

  2. Vanessa says:

    Long story short, comes more than 50 years too late for me.

  3. Lance Eaton says:

    I appreciate this push and also think it’s a bait and switch that we don’t see in the larger context.

    Wages as a whole have been stagnant for the last several decades given the way wealth has risen–despite some gains in the last few years.

    By removing the college degree from many of these jobs–it also allows for entities to pay less–for everyone. If the context that someone without a degree can do this, then the logic is that it is not as “valuable” and therefore should be paid less.

    YET, they are still likely to hire folks with degrees–for a few different reasons:

    1. We still see them as a marker–esepcialy people throughout a system that is already filled with them.

    2. If you’re screening through scores or hundreds of applications (for some jobs), it will be one marker that will more easily distinguish who to do a first interview with (after all, no one is discussing the further impact on HR here that will mean MORE applicants–is there any increased support or time alloted for that possibility–of course not).

    3. States and organizations are likely already using software to already help sort and score. I haven’t seen evidence one way or another but history tells me that sorting is biased to likely preference people with degrees.

    So in the end, the system still will hire many more people with degrees and now, they only have to pay them less (think how this plays out in statehouses–“oh, we don’t have to pay that much, these are jobs that somoene without a degree can do”–not saying that’s right but that is a fair consideration).

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