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Why States Must Remove Degree Requirements for Equitable Hiring

The U.S. Will Be Left Behind If We Don’t Remove Degree Hiring Requirements

For most of the past two decades, American employers have relied on bachelors degrees to determine whether a candidate’s resume warrants consideration to move forward in the hiring process. This measurement has remained the status quo due to a combination of tradition, perceived reliability, and practical convenience. But it’s time for employers to pause and ask ourselves why we are still using this approach to screening candidates in 2023, despite growing awareness that something far different is needed for the evolving landscape of work and learning. 

While possessing a higher education degree has historically been seen as an indicator of a candidate’s success, dedication, discipline, and critical thinking ability, this approach has also enabled a corporate bias toward candidates with access to higher education over candidates with valuable skills gained through alternative paths – approximately 70 million people in the U.S. (or half of the adult working population) and the majority of Black, Hispanic, rural, and veteran workers. It’s time to rethink this approach. 

Grab Your Crystal Ball: What The Future Will Look Like Without Skills-Based Hiring

Although painting a dark picture of the future is far from motivating, the fact remains that businesses are likely to face serious challenges if they fail to embrace a broader view of where and how valuable workforce skills can be developed. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the college enrollment rate of recent high school graduates has dropped by 4.2% from October 2019 to October 2022. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has shown that “bachelor’s degree holders earn 31 percent more than those with an Associate’s degree and 84 percent more than those with just a high school diploma,” however, the long-term ROI of college degree attainment is failing to nullify other factors that are keeping many high school graduates out of higher education. Converging trends such as the pandemic, high costs of college tuition, concerns about student-loan debt, and a perceived decrease in the overall value-add of higher education institutions have all contributed to crashing enrollment rates. These trends have huge implications for the workforce pipeline, including:  

  • Talent Shortage: Industries that require specific skills, particularly those tied to emerging technologies, may face an acute shortage of qualified candidates. The inability to fill crucial positions could lead to delays in projects, reduced competitiveness, and missed opportunities for growth and advancement.
  • Innovation Stagnation: A narrow focus on traditional degrees may hamper the development of diverse and creative solutions contributed by individuals from various backgrounds. This leaves unexplored opportunities and ideas dormant.
  • Unemployment/Underemployment: A skills-based gap may result in higher unemployment rates, particularly among individuals who possess valuable skills but lack formal degrees. This mismatch between available skills and job requirements may also lead to underemployment, where individuals work in positions that do not fully utilize their capabilities, hindering both personal and economic growth.
  • Income Inequality: While this is ever present in our current economy, a continued reliance on degrees as the sole marker for employment may perpetuate and increase income inequality across the American workforce. Individuals from marginalized backgrounds who lack access to traditional higher education might find it challenging to secure well-paying jobs, exacerbating existing disparities and limiting social mobility.
  • Limited or Missed Economic Potential: Failing to tap into the full spectrum of talent and skills within the workforce could mean missed opportunities for economic growth. Diverse perspectives and skill sets are essential for driving innovation, expanding markets, and creating new industries.
  • Global Competitiveness: As other countries adopt more inclusive and flexible approaches to talent recruitment, the U.S. economy could fall behind on the global stage. Countries that have the ability to quickly adapt to the changing nature of work and leverage a diverse pool of skills will likely have the competitive economic edge.
  • Stifled Entrepreneurship: Entrepreneurial endeavors often thrive on the unique skills and experiences of individuals. A rigid adherence to traditional degree requirements could discourage potential entrepreneurs who possess valuable skills but lack formal credentials, limiting the creation of new businesses and ventures.
  • Decrease in Engagement and Satisfaction: Employees who are unable to apply their skills and passions in their roles may experience decreased job satisfaction and engagement. This could lead to higher turnover rates, increased training costs for employers, and a less motivated workforce.

Thankfully there is another path. And, state leaders have an opportunity to support and incentivize moving in a positive direction. 

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Driving change through Non-Partisan, Multi-State Collaborations 

In early 2023, Connecticut became the 14th state to remove bachelors degree requirements from a majority of public sector jobs, joining a cohort of other forward-thinking leaders – Colorado, Maryland, New Jersey, Virginia, and many others – that are at the forefront of reshaping the education-to-workforce landscape. By reevaluating the importance of bachelor’s degrees as a sole measure of competence and driving that change from the state level, they are collectively pushing us in a more positive direction. 

Opportunity At Work, an influential player in the skills-based hiring movement, has played a pivotal role in advocating for policy changes across states. In addition to the highly visible “Tear the Paper Ceiling” campaign, the organization has championed the cause for skills-based hiring by tracking and measuring the progress of these state approaches, helping validate the importance of a competency-driven approach to talent recruitment. 

Couple this with the work we are doing at America Succeeds, driven by our commitment to engaging business leaders in modernizing education systems to drive equity and opportunity, and you have a solid body of research on the impact of degree requirements on both learners and employers. Beyond the Durable Skills initiative, our recently published, No Worker Left Behind report serves as a blueprint for dismantling degree-based barriers to employment and deploying actionable insights for employers to take on board.

However, despite the momentum and interest in skills-based hiring, state agencies face challenges in implementing these changes in a scalable way. To-date, Alabama is the only state to have made considerable movement on implementing skills-based hiring at the state level with its Talent Triad initiative. This open-source data set and portal is meant to support Alabama residents in acquiring the skills, training, and services they need to pursue in-demand, state-based jobs. Collaborative cross-agency efforts like this simultaneously address the needs of learners, employers, and education providers and are proving that it’s possible to make this a reality everywhere – but we still have a long way to go. 

Not Just Words – Meaningful Action

The potential impact of states following in Alabama’s footsteps and collectively embracing these types of skills-based hiring solutions cannot be overstated. States possess the scale and influence to drive widespread adoption. At the same time, shifting toward a future characterized by equitable, skills-focused practices will require collaboration across nonprofits like Opportunity At Work and America Succeeds, alongside policymakers, businesses, educators, and community leaders who can serve as catalysts for change on the national stage. By intentionally embedding the findings and recommendations from the ‘No Worker Left Behind report’ in state-level initiatives, this transformation gains momentum.

Read the No Worker Left Behind report

States can use the insights from the report to craft policies that prioritize skills and competencies over traditional degree-centric measures. In turn, the lessons learned from existing bright sports can provide a blueprint for other organizations and states to follow.  

The shift towards skills-based hiring is a crucial step toward creating an equitable U.S. workforce. We have the opportunity to usher in a new era where competency, not just credentials, defines employment if we align around a common vision and pool resources across state lines to take meaningful action and challenge the status quo. The road ahead is promising, but it requires more than lip service. Will you join me in this transformative journey towards equitable hiring practices?

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