Originally published in Vox.com on March 19, 2023.
When President Joe Biden recently touted the hundreds of billions of dollars invested into American manufacturing in the last two years, he included a talking point that previous Democratic presidents might not have bragged about. New factories in Ohio, he said, could offer thousands of “jobs paying $130,000 a year, and many don’t require a college degree.”
When Biden highlighted those non-college jobs at the State of the Union, it was just three weeks after Pennsylvania’s new Democratic governor Josh Shapiro eliminated the requirement of a four-year college degree for the bulk of jobs in Pennsylvania state’s government, two months after Utah’s Republican governor Spencer Cox did the same, and nearly one year after Maryland’s Republican governor Larry Hogan set off the trend. Since the president’s State of the Union, Alaska’s Republican governor Mike Dunleavy has also followed suit.
Maryland’s newly elected Democratic governor, Wes Moore, plans to continue opening up state jobs to non-college-educated workers, confirmed his spokesperson.
For liberal politicians like Moore, Shapiro, and Biden, promoting policies to help the more than 70 million American workers who never graduated from college is rooted partly in politics, as Democrats have struggled recently to earn support from non-college-educated voters, especially men. After decades of prioritizing college attendance, the Democratic Party has been scrambling to figure out how to change the widespread perception that its leaders are out of touch with the struggles of average people.
But the announcements we’ve seen haven’t just come from Democrats looking to appeal to voters or just from elected officials. And they’re not even mere reactions to the heightened competition for workers, though that’s part of it.
The moves are the result of a concerted effort, backed by staggering research and a multi-million-dollar advertising campaign, to educate employers on broken hiring practices that have needlessly locked two-thirds of the workforce out of higher-paying American jobs. For decades, more and more job postings have reflexively required college degrees. Now it’s finally being recognized this was a mistake.
Why so many jobs started requiring college degrees that didn’t before
The story of college degree requirement creep begins back in the 1980s, as employers started to hire globally for workers and tech automation started to change the nature of many domestic jobs in America. As routinized factory work began to be replaced by machines or outsourced to other countries, one consequence was a shift toward expecting workers to handle more social tasks, with so-called “soft skills” that facilitate collaboration like conscientiousness and the ability to make small talk.
Between 1980 and 2012, jobs requiring high levels of social interaction grew by nearly 12 percentage points as a share of the US labor force, according to Harvard education researcher David Deming. As a hiring proxy for this, companies started to turn to four-year college degrees.
These trends accelerated during the Great Recession, when employers had a labor surplus to choose from. Of the 11.6 million jobs created between 2010 and 2016, three out of four required at least a bachelor’s degree, and just one out of every 100 required a high school diploma or less.
These changes were documented in a 2017 study led by researchers at Harvard Business School. Their report, “Dismissed by Degrees,” found more than 60 percent of employers rejected otherwise qualified candidates in terms of skills or experience simply because they did not have a college diploma, and that the imperfect BA proxy had many negative consequences for workers and companies alike.
One of the researchers’ most revealing findings was that millions of job postings listed college degree requirements for positions that were currently held by workers without them. For example, in 2015, 67 percent of production supervisor job postings asked for a four-year college degree, even though just 16 percent of employed production supervisors had graduated from college. Many of these so-called “middle-skill” jobs, like sales representatives, inspectors, truckers, administrative assistants, and plumbers, were facing unprecedented “degree inflation.”
The report pointed to employer surveys that showed workers without college degrees were often considered just as productive on the job as their college-educated counterparts. They were also less likely to turnover and less expensive for companies to hire. Degree inflation was particularly harmful to Black and Hispanic job applicants, the researchers noted, since they’re less likely than white applicants to have college diplomas.
“That report was a wakeup call for companies but it definitely took some time to get out there,” said Elyse Rosenblum, the founder of Grads of Life, a nonprofit that backed the study and encourages businesses to adopt more diverse hiring practices.
Rosenblum’s group grew out of work that began during the Obama administration to help so-called “disconnected youth” — referring to the roughly 4 million young adults, ages 16-24, who were neither working nor in school. These efforts led to a national 2014 “Grads of Life” ad campaign, followed soon after by a national organization with the same name.
Another major player focused on degree inflation is Opportunity@Work, a group founded in 2015 originally to support an Obama White House initiative dedicated to expanding the tech hiring pipelines. In 2019, Opportunity@Work turned its full attention to helping all 70 million workers without four-year degrees. To refer to these workers, they coined the term “STARs”, an acronym for Skilled Through Alternative Routes.
“We felt it was important to name this talent category for what it is, a skilled talent group,” explained the group’s chief operating officer, Shad Ahmed.
Opportunity@Work helped bring about more discourse-shifting research. Working with Peter Blair, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, in March 2020 they published their first study, “Reach for the STARs,” which found that workers in low-wage jobs often have skills that are in high demand by higher-wage employers. Over 5 million workers without college degrees, they noted, were already in jobs paying at least $77,000 per year, proving “that a bachelor’s degree is not the only route to gain skills for higher wages.”
Nine months later, Opportunity@Work published a second report, looking at mobility barriers among high-skilled non-degree holders, and launched a hiring database to help connect STARs with local employers.
The tightening labor market, George Floyd’s murder, and the pandemic all sped up hiring reform
Years before governors and the president started talking about degree inflation, some companies were already ahead of the curve. Perhaps the most widely recognized leader is the technology conglomerate IBM, which back in the Great Recession realized it needed to loosen its hiring requirements to stay competitive.
“They say necessity is the mother of invention, and that’s essentially where we found ourselves about 10 years ago,” explained IBM’s chief human resources officer, Nickle LaMoreaux, pointing to the shortage of skilled tech workers, the “half-life” of tech skills, and the fact that two-thirds of US adults lacked bachelor’s degrees. By 2021, half of IBM’s US jobs no longer required a college degree.
Ahmed said in addition to a tightening labor market, George Floyd’s murder and the attention that brought to structural racism in America generated new focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion in businesses.
“Nonessential degree requirements aren’t race-neutral,” Ahmed and Blair wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2020. “They embed into the labor market the legacy of black exclusion from the U.S. education system—namely, the antiliteracy laws that made it illegal for blacks to learn to read, the separate and unequal schools that kept them from catching up, and the limited progress since then on policies designed to remedy racial discrimination.”
In December 2020, in response to Floyd’s death, business leaders launched the OneTen coalition with the goal of placing 1 million Black Americans without college degrees in “family-sustaining jobs” over the next decade. The high-profile effort was led by IBM’s executive chairman and Merck’s chief executive, and included leaders from companies like Cisco, Nike, Target, and American Express. One year later, the coalition announced it had expanded to include 60 member companies. Part of their work involves identifying alternative ways to discern whether workers possess the skills they need.
This past September, a new chapter in this broader culture-shifting work began. Developed in partnership between Opportunity@Work and the Ad Council, a nonprofit that sponsors public service advertisements across the country, a campaign to “tear the paper ceiling” launched, focused on removing barriers to workers without college degrees. Nearly 50 national groups participated in the campaign’s launch at an event co-hosted with LinkedIn.
There’s evidence of an “emerging degree reset”
The hard work is starting to pay off. Earlier this year, the New York Times editorial board published a piece that praised the work of companies like IBM and governors like Josh Shapiro for expanding their hiring practices to include individuals without college diplomas. “Making college more affordable is important, but there are other keys to the doors of opportunity as well,” they wrote.
Last year, researchers from Harvard Business School and the Burning Glass Institute found evidence of what they called “an emerging degree reset” in hiring. By analyzing over 51 million job postings dating back to 2014, the researchers found that between 2017 and 2019 roughly 46 percent of “middle-skill” and 37 percent of “high-skill” occupations no longer asked for a bachelor’s degree, and instead had job postings listing technical and social skills instead. The report concluded that based on the trends they were observing, an additional 1.4 million jobs could open to workers without college degrees in the next five years.
“Jobs do not require four-year college degrees,” the report’s authors wrote. “Employers do.”
Getting more employers to rethink their degree requirements will take hard work. Rosenblum, of Grads of Life, said one of the biggest barriers is just changing mindsets. “Employers have grown up in a system where the four-year degree is the proxy and there’s a perception that it’s risky to do something different,” she said.
So far, there is no perfect, universal alternative assessment to identify the professional skills employers have previously relied on a Bachelor’s degree to signal. But Rosenblum and Ahmed from Opportunity@Work say there’s a lot of work happening right now to develop those tools, such as creating micro-credentials for individual industries. Software developers reflect a good example of an industry that has embraced new hiring practices, partly because employers have found other ways to verify the quality of someone’s coding skills, making college degrees less relevant. The challenge is finding out how to create comparable assessments for other fields.
Ahmed said there’s still a lot of work to do to get managers to realize that STARs are half of the talent pool. “Many just do not know, we’re all in our own cocoons,” he said.
New data released this month suggests employers are hiring at a slower rate, and economists still warn of a possible recession this year as inflation persists. Advocates for hiring workers without college degrees say it’s critical that employers don’t revert to the same flawed hiring proxies they adopted following the last big economic downturn.
“I do have frankly a lot of concern,” said Rosenblum. “We’re having a lot of change in our labor market, things are weakening, and we’re seeing companies doing hiring freezes and layoffs. We’re spending a lot of time talking with business leaders about the need to make sure we don’t go back to what happened in the 2008 recession.”