Marty Grawe knows that he wants to become a nurse. He’s just not sure of the best educational route to help him reach his career destination.
“There are two options I’m currently considering,” said Grawe, a second-year student at Cecil College, a Maryland community college that offers accredited nursing programs.
Ideally, he will complete his two years at Cecil, enroll at a four-year university, earn his bachelor’s degree and go get a nursing job. But he’s not exactly eager to take on the kind of debt that would come with pursuing a B.A.
“I would be much more willing to go to a university if I only had to pay their high tuition prices for two years instead of four,” said Grawe, a 2021 graduate of Solanco High School in Quarryville, Pa.
With the cost of a four-year degree being a possible deterrent, Grawe has thought about taking another path: getting a job after earning his associate’s degree at Cecil and “potentially having my future employer pay for my bachelor’s [degree] in nursing.”
After all, Grawe figures he could get a job in nursing next year when he leaves community college with his associate’s degree in hand — earning a living while chipping away at the credits he needs to obtain his bachelor’s. However he winds up doing it, though, he wants to further his education.
“For me, going to community college was mainly a way to lessen the amount of student loan debt I will have. I still always felt I wanted to go to school for four years.”
Grawe, 18, is barely a year removed from high school graduation. And he’s far from the only recent grad wondering whether a four-year college stay is a worthwhile career investment.
The cost of that investment has ballooned by roughly 170% during the past four decades. Those increased costs mean more students and their families are borrowing money for college. In recent years, 70% of college graduates begin their post-college careers with an average debt of $37,175. Grawe says he’s pretty set on getting his bachelor’s degree. Others in his age group aren’t so sure that’s the way they want to go.
Consider one study, conducted in fall 2021, which found the number of teens planning to attend a four-year university declining, with less than half now considering it. And, even though 86% of more than 1,000 students surveyed said they “feel pressure to pursue a four-year degree,” 53% believe they can achieve professional success with education attained in three years or less.
There are signs that employers are also becoming a bit more ambivalent toward employees’ academic bona fides.
A survey of 1,000 “influential heads of teams and groups within companies,” conducted by BestColleges, found more than 80% of those business leaders saying they think that workforce skills gaps can be closed through alternative education pathways.
And, while the majority of respondents did not discount the value of four-year degrees, “more of them indicated that bachelor’s degrees were not necessary for many new jobs and said employers should not include the requirement when they post positions.”
Such figures seem to beg the question: Do employers still care about education when assessing job candidates and making talent decisions? Or has all this talk of the four-year degree’s demise been greatly exaggerated?
"For me, going to community college was mainly a way to lessen the amount of student loan debt I will have. I still always felt I wanted to go to school for four years."
Stressing Skills First
Some high-profile companies — Google, AT&T, Dell, Ernst & Young, Oracle, IBM and Intel, to name a few — have recently made headlines by loosening advanced-degree requirements in their hiring criteria.
A recent study from Harvard Business Review and Emsi Burning Glass analyzed more than 51 million job postings at some of these organizations, and many others, from 2017 to 2020. The researchers found many companies dropping bachelor’s degree requirements for middle-skilled and highly-skilled positions. And, rather than making four-year degrees a hiring prerequisite, employers are focusing on more skills-based hiring in an effort to expand their talent pools, the study found.
For example, the researchers looked at job postings for software quality assurance engineers across a variety of companies. Only 29% of postings at IBM included degree requirements. Just 26% contained such conditions for openings at Accenture.
Layla O’Kane, a senior economist at Emsi Burning Glass, was a lead researcher on that study, and she put forth a number of reasons for this shift toward stressing skills over academics.
“Firstly, employers are currently facing labor shortages. Dropping degree requirements can widen the pool of applicants and help employers find the talent they need,” O’Kane said.
"Employers are currently facing labor shortages. Dropping degree requirements can widen the pool of applicants and help employers find the talent they need."
And, with skills requirements continuing to evolve quickly in certain jobs, it is easier for employers to focus on skills rather than use degrees as a proxy for those competencies, particularly in positions that require digital expertise, she said.
“Thirdly, employers looking to focus on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts may be able to reduce historic inequities in access to good jobs by focusing on skills rather than degrees.”
Removing generic degree requirements can help employers home in on the specific abilities that a given job calls for, O’Kane added.
“In many technical roles, the primary focus for employers will be the technical or digital skills required to perform the job,” she explained. “That being said, the main changes in the skills we see employers asking for tend to be in soft or human skills, like communication, teamwork and time management. This implies that employers were previously using a degree requirement to filter for these soft skills and are now being more explicit about needing them in their roles.”
And, it appears that private-sector employers such as those that O’Kane and her colleagues studied aren’t the only ones rethinking the need for four-year degrees (see “Looking to the STARs”).
In January 2021, for instance, the U.S. government issued a memorandum reminding federal agencies “of the long-standing requirement to limit the use of educational requirements in favor of stated skills when acquiring information technology (IT) services.”
The memo cited a 2020 executive order that called on federal agencies to increase the use of skills and competency-based hiring for employment with the federal government, noting that “an overreliance on college degrees excludes capable candidates and undermines labor-market efficiencies.”
"Employers were previously using a degree requirement to filter for these soft skills and are now being more explicit about needing them in their roles."
Education Versus Expertise
Of course, none of this is to say that four-year degrees have been completely devalued.
In fact, many companies are still very much invested in helping their workers continue their education, with some taking on significant chunks of the cost to help employees earn their degree.
At Allstate, for example, employees with at least one year of employment with the company are eligible to receive 100% reimbursement up to a maximum of $5,250 annually if they choose to pursue certain undergraduate, graduate, IT certification or insurance designations related to an Allstate career path.
Through its Graduate School Assistance Program, Deloitte offers full tuition reimbursement to employees seeking graduate degrees. Program participants must be with the company for two full years before they apply and must stay with Deloitte for two years after returning from graduate school to receive the reimbursement.
Such tuition reimbursement programs have long been a popular benefit, and figure to remain so. And, as O’Kane points out, there will always be vocations that require advanced degrees — physicians, attorneys, engineers, for instance.
It might also be tempting to think of eliminating degree requirements for some jobs as a temporary measure, as a way to attract much-needed talent at a time when employees are heading for the exits at a dizzying rate.
Looking ahead, though, some experts predict that the trend toward deemphasizing college degrees — especially for middle-skill occupations — will continue long after this hot labor market cools off.
Ravin Jesuthasan, global transformation services leader at Mercer, thinks more employers — in government and in the private sector — will begin dropping requirements for four-year degrees in certain roles.
Academic experience does little to predict on-the-job performance anyway, Jesuthasan said. “The college degree is an incredibly poor indicator of work readiness. It creates an artificial barrier for connecting talent to work and results in the exclusion of large swathes of otherwise highly qualified talent from work. Many governments and organizations are realizing that a large amount of work can be performed by talent that are skilled through alternative routes [STARs].”
Education or degrees have typically been seen as “a shortcut to assess an associated level of knowledge and experience,” said Brad Hill, principal at Clearwater Human Capital, a Chicago-based compensation consulting firm.
Noting the difficulty in determining how, if at all, a degree correlates with performance or actual job knowledge, Hill agrees that more companies are likely to eliminate degree requirements.
“But that doesn’t mean that looking at an applicant’s education level will go away,” he added. “I think education will still be used as a shortcut to assess knowledge, but other intellectual or challenging experiences will also be viewed as important considerations.”
Eliminating baseline education standards altogether would mean having to replace this criterion with a different “semi-objective factor to assess knowledge requirements at different levels of the organization, and that may not be easy,” Hill concluded.
“We would need to describe the knowledge and thinking needed in the job in non-degree terms. This will require significantly more effort than using our degree shortcut. I’m not sure many organizations will be up for that task.”
LOOKING TO THE STARs
The talent pool for government jobs in the state of Maryland just got deeper.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced that some government roles in the Old Line State will no longer require four-year degrees, as part of a new initiative designed to expand job opportunities.
With 38,000 employees, the state government is one of Maryland’s largest employers, and “thousands of state jobs in every department will be open to applicants with relevant experience and training, particularly in the information technology, administrative and customer-service sectors, which previously required a college degree,” according to the Baltimore Sun.
Maryland’s Department of Legislative Services has reported a record number of open positions across the state, saying that this “vacancy crisis” is adversely affecting state government operations.
As part of the new initiative, “more than 300 state government jobs currently are open to applicants without a bachelor’s degree who are active in the labor force, have a high school diploma or equivalent, and have developed skills through community college, apprenticeships, military service, boot camps or previous job experience.”
The state will work with partners such as Opportunity@Work to recruit for and market these roles to job seekers who are Skilled Through Alternative Routes, or STARs.
“STARs are age 25 or older, active in the labor force, have a high school diploma or equivalent, and have developed their skills through alternative routes such as community college, apprenticeships, military service, boot camps and, most commonly, on the job,” according to a statement from Hogan’s office.
Opportunity@Work, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit dedicated to workforce development, estimates there are currently more than 70 million such workers in the United States.
Byron Auguste, CEO and co-founder of Opportunity@Work, noted that Maryland is home to more than 1 million such STARs who have gained job expertise through community college, military service, workforce training, on-the-job learning or other means.
By launching this initiative, “Gov. Hogan and his administration are making clear that Maryland values all the skills of its diverse workforce,” Auguste said in a statement. “This will enable more Marylanders to work, learn and earn to their fullest potential and is a promising model for other states and employers to follow.”