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Is It Time to Rethink the College Degree Requirement?

With U.S. unemployment at a record low and demand for talent intensifying, employers are reexamining hiring practices and how they define qualified talent. Many are making changes to hiring practices such as loosening requirements that candidates possess a bachelor’s degree. But how widespread is this strategy?

Beyond tech companies that host splashy hackathons to attract talent with or without degrees, what’s happening more broadly? Is loosening policies about academic credentials to broaden the talent pool an idea that gets a lot of play in LinkedIn discussion forums, but one that few employers are implementing? And if organizations are willing to waive college degree requirements, is there an effect on college campus recruiting activities?

These questions are among those the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) explored with its latestThe Perceived Importance of College Degrees. 

The answers aren’t simply yes or no—much depends on the organization, functional areas, and roles.  

College degrees matter less

Changing college degree requirements for new hires

Most of the 137 professionals surveyed (largely directors, VPs, SVPS, and C-level) reported that the viewpoints of their organizations on loosening requirements for college degrees remain unchanged for the most part today compared to three years ago (50%).

But 27% indicated there’s less emphasis on college degree requirements in their organizations now than there was three years ago and looking ahead, 31% anticipate this will continue—there will be less emphasis on degree requirements in the coming years. Conversely, 19% reported that emphasis on the college degree requirement has increased in the past three years in their organizations.

Actions employers are taking (and planning to take)

Over half (52%) of those surveyed indicated that their organizations haven’t taken steps to loosen the college degree requirement for roles that traditionally required the credential and have no plans to.

But a combined 35% reported that their organizations have already relaxed the requirement (27%) or have plans to do so (8%). “It’s a topic that’s under discussion right now,” noted one respondent. Others commented that there is current open debate on this in their organizations, especially around decisions about classifications and what qualifies as relevant equivalent experience.

Factors that matter most in lieu of college degrees

Job descriptions that read something like “relevant experience will be accepted as a substitute for a college degree” don’t usually expand on what’s meant by this. Survey results told us that employment history is weighed most heavily in lieu of a college degree in making hiring decisions (85%), followed by a demonstrated track record of success (73%)—so candidates who lack a degree but are skilled at telling their stories will benefit.

This also speaks to the power of diverse development experiences and having opportunities such as internal/external mobility, assignments on various project teams, etc. Having certifications and other documentation that validates knowledge or expertise is also weighed by well over half the survey participants (66%), followed by skills assessments (40%), and referral by a current employee (28%).  

Some functions are more likely to get a pass, especially customer service

Of those who reported that their organizations have relaxed the college degree requirement for applicants, 27% said their organizations have identified specific roles that no longer require a college degree, and another 29% said they make this decision on a case-by-case basis—not a new practice by any means.  

A screenshot of a cell phoneDescription generated with very high confidence

The top five functional areas cited among those that don’t require a college degree for some roles are those dominated by mid-level skills jobs—those that require at least a high school diploma. They were, respectively:

  1. Customer service (69%)
  2. Operations (57%)
  3. Sales (34%)
  4. IT (30%)
  5. Human resources (29%)

On the other end of the spectrum, the functional areas least likely to waive the college degree requirement for hires: engineering, research & development, product development, marketing, and management.

Attracting talent via campus recruiting, student loan debt relief, and other strategies

Even with decreasing emphasis on the college degree requirement, most employers remain invested in attending college and university recruitment events—40% said they participate in such events and plan to continue doing so, 23% said that their organizations plan to expand their college recruiting efforts. But 14% reported that they still participate in college/university recruitment events nonetheless, they have significantly scaled back their participation lately.  

To attract new graduates, some employers offer student loan debt relief assistance. But it’s a strategy very few organizations currently use—just 5% indicated that it’s a current enticement offered to all college graduate new hires—and 7% said they currently do this but only for specific roles—it’s a perk that’s often not broadly discussed and reserved for specialized, high-value talent.

And an additional 13% indicated that they plan to offer student loan debt relief in the future (see our just released key elements of successful tuition assistance programs , developed in coordination with Upskill America at the Aspen Institute).

It’s definitely time for the HR and talent acquisition team to have a conversation about job descriptions, whether each job truly requires a college degree, and if so, why? Do you have employees who are college graduates languishing in mid-skill roles who are disengaged?

And what sort of development can your organization provide to develop the skills needed if a college degree isn’t necessary? Which Job descriptions can and should be updated to help attract qualified candidates who don’t have college degrees? Where can investment be made in talent development?

Other strategies organizations are considering to their hiring practices to help widen the pool of potential candidates include:

  • Waiving the requirement for a high school diploma or GED for entry-level manufacturing or production positions
  • Focusing more on hiring veterans who did not attend college
  • Revamping existing or reactivating dormant employee referral programs
  • Expanding internship programs and increasing the number of interns they bring in each year
  • Placing more emphasis on hiring people with disabilities
  • Offering more flexible and remote work arrangements
  • Enhancing social media recruiting efforts
  • Looking at minimum requirements for all job descriptions to identify which ones may present barriers to applicants and considering whether to drop them
  • Loosening time-in-role requirements for internal transfers
  • Creating mechanical and electrical certification apprenticeship programs for field service engineer positions

Lorrie Lykins is the vice president of research and managing editor at i4cp. 

Lorrie Lykins
Lorrie is i4cp's Vice President of Research. A thought leader, speaker, and researcher on the topic of gender equity, Lorrie has decades of experience in human capital research. Lorrie’s work has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other renowned publications.