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College Degree Requirements Hinder Black Workers' Earnings, Career Advancement

Qualified Black job-seekers less likely than white applicants to have degrees

A woman is talking to another woman in an office.

Many employers require a college degree for positions that don't necessarily need a candidate to have spent four or more years—and tens of thousands of dollars—attending college. Because Black job candidates are less likely to hold a degree than white applicants, degree requirements can keep skilled and talented workers out of certain positions, which lowers their earning potential and makes creating diversified and inclusive workplaces more difficult for companies.

To improve diversity in hiring, corporate executives "should change their hiring and management practices to focus on job skills, rather than continuing to privilege college degrees," Peter Q. Blair and Shad Ahmed wrote in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. "This change would increase diversity in the workforce and expand economic opportunity without sacrificing quality," noted Blair, an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard, and Ahmed, who is chief partnerships officer at Opportunity@Work, a nonprofit that works to lower barriers against economic mobility.

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Inflated Job Requirements

Research published in 2017 by the Harvard Business School shows that degree inflation in job postings is pervasive. Sixty-seven percent of postings for new production supervisors in 2015 included college-degree requirements, though only 16 percent of existing production supervisors had bachelor's degrees.

Requiring a bachelor's degree "has a disparate impact on Black Americans," Blair and Ahmed said. They noted that among workers over age 25, U.S. census data shows:

  • 40 percent of white adults hold at least a bachelor's degree.
  • 26 percent of Black adults have a bachelor's degree or higher.

Research findings that Blair, Ahmed and their colleagues published in March found that 16 million U.S. workers with only a high school diploma have the skills for high-wage work, based on the skill profile of their current jobs. However, 11 million of them are currently employed in low-wage or middle-wage work.

"STARs," or workers "skilled through alternative routes," make up 60 percent of the active U.S. workforce, according to Blair and Ahmed, who advised companies to take steps such as these:

  • Hire for skills and work experience, not degrees. "Examine the skills that their jobs require and then use skill requirements for job postings, screenings and assessments," they recommended.
  • Invest in STARs to support employees' career advancement. Walmart, for example, offers educational benefits for its employees through its Live Better U program, which provides skilled-trade and digital-skills training to support working adult learners.
  • Expand recruiting networks. "Many STARs work in overlooked sectors such as retail sales and child care," Blair and Ahmed noted. "Companies should expand recruiting pipelines from these sources [and] reassess referral processes" to close a networking gap that favors college graduates. Examples of this approach are Workday's Opportunity Onramps program, which connects individuals who face barriers to employment with in-demand careers, and Salesforce's Pathfinder program, a workforce development initiative that provides training in the technical and business skills needed to pursue a career at the company.

[SHRM members-only how-to guide: How to Develop a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Initiative]

Upskilling Employees

"Minorities are uniquely impacted by the inability to go to college," said Wesley Connor, vice president of global learning and development at Randstad Enterprise Group, a talent acquisition advisory firm. "There is a lot of unconscious bias around those who don't have a college degree." 

Offering internal qualification programs is one way to help alleviate that bias, he explained.

"Even before the pandemic, many lower-level jobs were being replaced by automation," Connor said. "If companies are going to continue to be successful, they're going to have to figure out how to upskill and reskill more people a lot more quickly and on the job."

Connor pointed out that Google launched online certificate programs focused on three core competencies: data analytics, product management and user experience. Each virtual learning program takes six months to complete.

"Internally, hiring managers will consider completing these programs the equivalent of a four-year college degree," he said. "The idea is that anyone can upskill themselves and be on an equal playing field as far as applying for positions internally at Google."

Connor believes relying on certification programs rather than on college degrees to assess a candidate's ability—which is increasingly common in the information technology industry—could spread to businesses generally.

As to why companies are still resistant to hiring based on skill sets rather than on a college credential, Connor explained, "It's deeply enrooted in our systems, and it's a screening tool. But we know that the average cost for college is between $75,000 to $120,000, and there's a huge portion of the population that can't afford to go to college."

GPA Screening Limits Diversity

Using grade point averages to screen out candidates also creates barriers to hiring Black and other minority job applicants, reported SHRM Online's Roy Maurer.

"Many companies have GPA requirements above 3.0. As a result, they are losing a substantial amount of Black and Hispanic candidates who may apply and be rejected due to GPA minimums, or who may not apply at all if they see the requirement," Liz Wessel, CEO of WayUp, a New York City-based jobs site and resource center for college students and recent graduates, told Maurer in June.

A report from Georgetown University shows that low-income working students are disproportionately Black and Hispanic, she noted. "As a result, these low-income students put in more working hours than their counterparts," and often they "have less time to spend in a library," which are reasons they statistically have lower GPAs than other candidates.

"Employers auto-reject more Black and Hispanic candidates than white or Asian applicants because of their GPA requirements alone," Wessel said, "which is ironic because most hiring managers would far prefer a 3.0 student who worked throughout college than a 4.0 student who spent most of their time in the library."

Related SHRM Articles:

Black Workers Face Health Care and Retirement Savings Benefits Gaps, SHRM Online, July 2020

Black Workers Still Earn Less than Their White Counterparts, SHRM Online, June 2020


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