Why more organizations are dropping college-degree requirements for job candidates

It’s not just a smart way to find overlooked talent, experts say—it can also be a boon for DE&I goals
article cover


· 3 min read

Going to college is probably, if not definitely, a worthy investment, according to 87% of US employers who responded to a survey conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities last year. However, this supposedly worthy investment in higher education is prohibitively expensive for many: Total student loan debt topped $1.75 trillion last year, according to the Federal Reserve, and total US college enrollment sunk 6.6% between 2019 and 2021—the largest two-year decline in 50 years—according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

As an increasing number of companies remove college-degree requirements for job applicants, recruiters may want to look beyond the ivory tower (and maybe glance flirtatiously at the coding bootcamp) for budding talent, or even seasoned managerial candidates. There are several reasons why ditching the degree might be a useful consideration for anyone looking to fill open positions.

Opening the talent pipeline. As of 2019, about two-thirds of Americans age 25 and older did not have bachelor’s degrees, according to the US Census Bureau, but recruiters shouldn’t view this degree gap as an aptitude gap, Paul Wallenberg, senior director of technology services at the staffing agency LaSalle Network, explained to HR Brew.

“The idea that degrees have some sort of certainty, I think, is a misnomer…there are bad lawyers and there are bad doctors in this world. The fact that they have that degree doesn’t have any indication on their morality, their character,” Wallenberg said.

Accepting applications from candidates without degrees allows a largely invisible talent pool to come into focus. “You can open your talent pipeline, and really home in and get specific on what’s going to be a good fit for my company and for the role,” said Lara Bach, associate director of advisory services at recruitment consultancy Grads of Life.

HR is challenging. HR news doesn’t have to be.

HR Brew keeps you effective in the fast-changing business environment.

It’s also a diversity issue. A 2017 Harvard Business School report examined the focus companies paid to applicants with college degrees. The authors, Harvard professor Joseph Fuller and Manjari Raman, director of the Young American Leaders Program at Harvard Business School, found that “degree inflation”—defined as “the rising demand for a four-year college degree for jobs that previously did not require one”—has a particularly negative effect on “populations with college graduation rates lower than the national average, such as Blacks and Hispanics, age 25 years and older.”

Assessing skills. There are more direct ways to assess talent than with a degree. Tigran Sloyan, CEO and cofounder of the skills assessment software company CodeSignal, told HR Brew that the proliferation of online academic resources has made it possible for self-motivated candidates to make themselves indispensable without a four-year degree.

“Universities like MIT and Harvard have published entire curriculums for public consumption, and you can learn just about anything from YouTube,” he explained. (Anyone who’s ever struggled to devein shrimp knows that’s a fact.)

“A degree is a loose proxy for talent, but an objective skills assessment is a better way to gauge a candidate’s skill and potential,” Sloyan added.—SB

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Email [email protected] or DM @SammBlum on Twitter. For confidential conversations, ask Sam for his number on Signal.

HR is challenging. HR news doesn’t have to be.

HR Brew keeps you effective in the fast-changing business environment.