As states drop degree requirements, employers still seek out college grads

In March 2022, then-Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan unveiled a “first-in-the-nation” program rolling back degree requirements for thousands of government jobs. 

The move was part of an effort to fill a large number of position vacancies. Since then, at least 19 other states have followed suit, either by approving policies to evaluate whether degree requirements should be removed or by nixing them altogether. 

Policymakers expect for these moves to help fill state government vacancies by providing new job opportunities for workers who didn’t attend four years of college. 

They could also act as signals to private sector employers, encouraging them to not only rely on four-year degrees, but also look at other measures of skills, Tameshia Bridges Mansfield, vice president of workforce and regional economies at the Jobs for the Future, said in an email. 

That opens the door for jobs and advancement to more people, Bridges Mansfield said. However, even though these policies prop up workers without degrees, some experts say the changes won’t lessen the importance of a college diploma, which will continue to factor into hiring decisions and pay rates. 

Employers will likely continue to strongly value degrees when they’re hiring, regardless of what state or private employers list in job descriptions, Ben Wildavsky, a higher education expert and visiting scholar at the University of Virginia, said in an email.

“Higher education certainly isn’t perfect, but we have a lot of reason to believe that degrees command a wage premium because graduates develop a range of broad and targeted skills that are really useful for developing strong careers,” he said. 

What’s driving the trend?

Over the past decade, degree requirements in job descriptions have helped employers filter out the hundreds of online applications they receive, said Ryan Craig, managing director of Achieve Partners and author of the book “Apprentice Nation.” 

Companies use applicant tracking systems that match keywords in resumes with those in the job description, filtering out those with insufficient match rates, Craig said. “Bachelor’s degree” was an important search term in job descriptions that helped narrow down the applicant pool to a manageable number — preventing those without degrees from getting seen, he said. 

But an ongoing labor crunch is driving a bipartisan policy movement to drop degree requirements, Nicole Smith, chief economist at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, said in an email. Unemployment is low — holding below 4% since January 2022 — leaving many state jobs unfilled for long periods of time, she said. 

Moreover, a growing number of private sector employers dropped bachelor’s degree requirements for many middle-skill and some higher-skill roles amid the COVID-19 pandemic. That includes positions at companies such as IBM, Accenture, Google and Delta Air Lines.

Between 2019 and 2022, a growing number of employers emphasized skills over degrees in their job listings on LinkedIn, a recent study by the social media company found. 

Across many industries, paid job listings that did not require a degree grew on the platform at a much faster rate than those that did — 354% faster in financial services, 282% faster in accommodation and food services, and 240% faster in technology, information, and media.

But loosened degree requirements haven’t necessarily translated to hiring decisions. According to the Linkedin study, growth in hiring nondegree workers in those sectors was much slower than the listings might suggest. 

Accommodation and food service hires without professional degrees grew just 11% faster than those with them, financial services hires without degrees grew 6% faster, and technology, information, and media hires without degrees only grew 3% faster. 

The persistent value of a college degree

Wildavsky believes it is possible that the state laws and the “fashionable push to hire based on skills rather than degree” could discourage demand for degrees.

Public opinion polls suggest Americans’ views of higher education have dramatically fallen out of favor over the past decade. Last year, about three quarters of surveyed teens agreed that two-year degrees or technical certifications were enough to land a good job, versus 41%, who said a four-year degree was needed, according to a poll of 1,000 respondents between the ages of 13 and 18. 

That’s a real problem, Wildavsky said, because it risks misleading many Americans, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, about the benefits of education after high school. 

The number of people who obtained a college diploma has exploded over the past 80 years from less than 10% in 1940 to roughly 38% of adults having a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2021.

The jobs that are growing the fastest are using postsecondary education and training more intensely, Smith, of Georgetown, said. 

In a new report, Georgetown CEW projects that workers will increasingly need greater levels of education to succeed in the modern economy. By 2031, the report’s authors estimate that 72% of all jobs will require postsecondary education or trainingincreasing from about 68% in 2021. The 2031 prediction includes that 42% of jobs will require at least a bachelor’s degree. 

State policies that reduce bachelor’s requirements won’t affect that trend, Smith said.

“Even though states are removing the B.A. as an entry-level requirement for jobs, they are not removing the B.A. as a promotion requirement or as a requirement for more senior positions,” Smith said.

Research also suggests workers with bachelor’s degrees earn about 75% more in lifetime earnings than those with only a high school diploma. The wage gap occurred because the jobs employers were trying to fill increasingly required advanced education and skills, Wildavsky said. 

The wage gap “didn’t occur because of state bureaucrats imposing degree requirements in job descriptions,” he said. 

Despite the tight labor market — with low unemployment and high job vacancies — there’s not much reason to believe that the high wage premium associated with college degrees will fall anytime soon, said Wildavsky

Other solutions are needed

Skills-based hiring is only the first piece of the solution to providing job and career advancement opportunities for nondegree earners, said Bridges Mansfield, with Jobs for the Future. 

As employers plan their future business needs, they also need to help their workers understand what skills they already have and what they need to learn to perform well in their current roles or progress in their careers, she said. 

Additionally, Pell Grants that cover the cost of short-term credential programs “could be a game-changer,” said Bridges Mansfield. Congress is weighing a bill with bipartisan support that would allow federal Pell Grants to apply to higher education programs that run just eight weeks — much less than the current minimum of 15 weeks.

Even without degree requirements, however, employers still need to filter out the hundreds of applications, a dilemma that could ultimately leave early career workers behind.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean that things are getting easier for candidates applying to jobs, it just means that the criteria at the top of the funnel that will restrict you from being seen is changing,” said Craig. “That’s not necessarily helpful to someone looking to launch their career.”

Colorado’s policies could serve as a more effective model for other states to follow, said Craig. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, signed an executive order in September requiring its state agencies to substantially increase apprenticeship programs. 

With the experience gap, “the only way to solve that is through some kind of apprenticeship, where you’re literally being given the experience,” said Craig.