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What should employers consider when determining if a job requires a college degree?

Many  employers are reconsidering the educational requirements for some positions, and for good reason. As demand for skilled workers is increasing, expanding the talent pool is a business necessity. In addition, opening up doors to meaningful employment for job candidates that may not have had the opportunity to obtain a college degree but have the knowledge, skills and abilities to perform a job creates a more diverse workforce, which is a significant indicator of business success.

Hiring for skill rather than education is often advantageous to the employer. A new employee with a four-year college degree in computer science may still need training in an employer's software programs. However, a new hire who comes on board with an industry-recognized certificate in the software the company uses already knows how to navigate the program and requires less on-the-job training.

When determining if a degree is an actual predictor of job success, create a taxonomy of the hard and soft skills necessary to do the job and then evaluate if these skills can be acquired through avenues other than a degree program. Employers can pinpoint the skills needed for a particular job by looking internally at the skills demonstrated by top performers currently in the role, as well as identifying the skills needed for each of the essential job duties in the job description. For example, a typical middle manager's job description often includes the requirement to supervise employees and conduct performance evaluations. The skills necessary to successfully perform these duties could include verbal and written communication, interpersonal skills, attention to detail and time management.

Employers can also use external resources to identify the skills needed for specific positions. For example, O*Net OnLine is a resource for occupational information provided by the U.S. Department of Labor. Employers can use the Occupation Keyword Search on the O*Net homepage to see a list of skills typically associated with a particular job.

For technical skills, employers should consider if the job could be performed successfully by someone who obtained credentials through the completion of a certificate or apprenticeship program, rather than by earning a college degree. Skilled credentials are common with workers who have had a nontraditional or less direct path to their current or desired role, such as military veterans, caregivers re-entering the workforce and career switchers.

There are instances in which a college degree is necessary, sometimes by statute or regulation. For example, most states require attorneys to obtain a certain level of college education prior to practicing law. Similar requirements exist for nurses, teachers, accountants and other regulated professions. However, many professional jobs have traditionally been filled with college graduates at the preference of the employer, not due to any legal requirement.

Legally, employers wanting to avoid adverse impact claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 will want to ensure that the educational requirement is actually necessary for success in the job. According to an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission informal discussion letter, a facially neutral practice like requiring a college degree that has a significantly disparate impact on a protected group could render an employer liable if there was an alternative practice that would have been equally effective at predicting job performance. For example, requiring a college degree may have a disparate impact on racial minorities without college degrees, so an employer may be found liable if relying on work experience and/or skilled credentials would have been an equally effective job requirement. Employers should consider how effectively a college degree predicts job performance and whether a strict degree requirement applies to other people holding substantially similar jobs.


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