Why Fewer Employers Are Requiring College Degrees

By Kylie Ora Lobell September 11, 2023
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​In years past, having a college degree was required for almost every salaried job—and many hourly jobs, as well. Candidates who didn't have a degree often would lose out on opportunities and struggle to advance their careers. 

Recently, widespread talent shortages and a number of other cultural shifts have prompted more employers to revisit that requirement. 

About two-thirds of working-age adults (64 percent) do not hold a bachelor's degree, and undergraduate college enrollment fell by 8 percent from 2019 to 2022. The share of jobs that require a college degree fell to 44 percent last year, down from 51 percent in 2017, according to research from the Burning Glass Institute. 

As a result, major employers such as Dell, IBM and Bank of America have eliminated the college degree requirement for most jobs, and many other businesses are following suit. 

"College degrees are incredibly expensive, and the costs continue to rise," said Kim Jones, vice president of human resources at Toshiba America Business Solutions in Lake Forest, Calif., which employs more than 2,000 workers. "Many people are deciding not to sign up for lifelong student debt." 

While Jones believes there is value in a traditional college education, not requiring a degree often makes workplaces more diverse. "Everyone doesn't need to have the same background," she said. "Diversity of thought builds strong teams and creates successful businesses." 

At Boston-based Liberty Mutual, the college degree requirement was dropped for entry-level positions in 2017 to open the doors for people of different backgrounds. 

"A college degree continues to be valuable, but it isn't accessible to everyone, and we want to ensure equity in our hiring process," said Maura Quinn, vice president of early career; diversity, equity and inclusion; and talent acquisition programs at the insurance provider, which boasts 35,000 U.S. employees. "There are many ways people can learn and build new skills, which is why we've expanded beyond four-year degree programs. Talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not." 

[SHRM Foundation toolkit: Skilled Credentials at Work]

In the past, Leyda Lazo, SHRM-SCP, said she placed a significant emphasis on candidates having college degrees, but she recently changed her tune. 

"Our organizational focus began to shift in 2018 as a result of our concentrated diversity and inclusion efforts," said Lazo, an HR consultant at Human Capital Consultants International in Miramar, Fla., who oversees a team of 27 consultants. "We recognized that the requirement for a college degree might inadvertently exclude exceptionally talented individuals from underprivileged backgrounds who might not have had equal access to higher education opportunities." 

Compounding the issue has been the lack of available workers, which Lazo said convinced her to focus on candidates' skills rather than degrees. 

"The ongoing labor shortage has undoubtedly played a role in catalyzing our shift," she said. "In sectors like logistics and transportation, there's a distinct scarcity of skilled workers. Emphasizing skills over degrees enables us to bridge these gaps in a more expedient and effective manner." 

Once employers start looking beyond college degree requirements, four areas tend to emerge as most important:  

1. Prior Experience 

At Toshiba, Jones seeks out candidates with the right experience for the job. "In many fields, experience is far more valuable than a degree," she said. "For example, hands-on experience learning how to fix a printer cannot be taught in a traditional college environment." 

Christine Branom, head of HR at a San Diego creative agency with 500 employees, also emphasizes experience when making hiring decisions. "I would strongly consider an applicant's previous experience, like whether they have demonstrated an ongoing pattern of growth and development in past roles," she said.

2. Critical Skill Sets 

Finding skilled workers has been another struggle for many employers, so when Lazo finds a highly skilled candidate, she is eager to hire them. 

"In sectors like logistics and transportation, there's a distinct scarcity of skilled workers," she said. "Emphasizing skills over degrees enables us to bridge these gaps in a more expedient and effective manner." 

Jones agreed. "We look for work experience that has similar or transferable skill sets," she said. "Or we look for more entry-level candidates who demonstrate a willingness to learn." 

3. Personality Traits 

For Branom, who doesn't have a college degree, her personality played a huge part in her success. "My passion, resilience and creative approach to work and life have given me tremendous opportunities," she said. 

Now, when Branom is searching for candidates, she seeks out those who work well with others and are creative problem solvers with a good attitude. 

"It's customary to gravitate toward individuals with degrees because that has been the industry norm," she said. "However, after working in HR for the past 20-plus years, you get a true grasp of what adds value to a company. I believe that a degree is quite valuable, but it's the attitude that one holds, with or without the degree, that has led to success." 

Lazo places significant emphasis on a candidate's learning agility and adaptability. "Given the dynamic nature of today's work environments, the capacity to swiftly grasp and adapt to emerging technologies, tools and processes is paramount," she said. "I greatly value candidates who have demonstrated a consistent track record of embracing change and displaying a commitment to continuous learning—traits that are particularly prized in our evolving landscape."  

4. View the Whole Picture

"As industries and job requirements continue to evolve, so do the criteria for evaluating job candidates," Lazo said. "This ushers in an era where a candidate's capabilities and potential are just as crucial, if not more so, than their academic achievements."

Focusing on the whole story of a person is essential for a team—and a business—to thrive, according to Jones. "Hiring is subjective. There is no one right answer to what background a candidate must have to be successful," she said. "Companies should build teams where people have a variety of experiences, education and backgrounds so that a team can build on one another's strengths and help each other with weaknesses."

Kylie Ora Lobell is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

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