Requiring Any Bachelor’s Degree Is BS… Says College Professor

I see that my 1998 degree from N. Korean U in Cannabis Growing with a 2.0 meets your bachelor’s degree requirement?

How Requiring “A Bachelor’s Degree” Hurts Your Organization

Most are surprised to learn that 65% of job openings now require some college? It’s been two years since I wrote about the problems with hiring college students. And why their degree doesn’t actually predict on-the-job success. Since then, many companies (like Google, Apple, and Starbucks) have reduced or eliminated the requirement that you must have “any bachelor’s degree” requirements. More recently, the State of Maryland just started a workforce initiative to formally eliminate the four-year college degree requirement from thousands of state jobs. There are multiple reasons why many are dropping this overly broad job requirement and why you should too. The top six reasons are listed below.

  1. First, realize that many without a degree can do your job.

Most are surprised to learn that requiring a college degree excludes a majority of the workers that could do your job. Because important research by Accenture revealed that “60% of the U.S. workforce doesn’t have a college degree, but they do have the skills required for a high-wage job.” So by requiring a degree, you are not only limiting your volume of applicants. You are also limiting the number of applications you will receive from those who could do the job.

  1. This BA/BS Knockout Factor Will Dramatically Limit The Size Of Your Talent Pool

A second reason for eliminating your “any bachelor’s degree” requirement is that it severely limits the size of your available applicant/talent pool in a tough talent market. To begin with, the supply/demand ratio is not in your company’s favor. On the demand side, 65% of job openings require some college. However, on the supply side, only 37.5% of the over 25 population in the U.S. have graduated from college. So because a majority doesn’t have your required bachelor’s degree, you are unnecessarily forcing yourself into a talent bidding war for the relatively small percentage of the population that can meet your college degree requirement. Unfortunately, if you recruit internationally, you will find that globally only 7% of the population has a bachelor’s degree.

  1. Requiring A Bachelor’s Degree Will Limit Diversity Recruiting

Requiring a bachelor’s degree will also significantly hurt your diversity recruiting. Demographic statistics reveal that (between the ages of 25-29) whites have nearly double the percentage of bachelor’s degrees than diverse groups (42.1% for Whites, versus only 22.8% for blacks and 18.5% for Hispanics). So requiring a bachelor’s degree can reduce the number of your possible diversity applicants by as much as 50%. Happily, it won’t have a negative effect on the number of available women applicants. Fortunately, ghosting software is now available that blocks off a candidate’s degree and grades. Anyone reviewing the resume can’t see them.

This degree requirement may also hurt diversity grads during interviewing because of their economic situation. They likely had to work during school, and they also probably went to a poorly funded school. As a result, they will likely have fewer positive college experiences to talk about during interviews than most other applicants. Also, their business results will suffer from less diversity on a company’s teams. And when potential applicants hear about the absence of diversity, it will be even harder in the future to recruit diverse talent. 

  1. Requiring A Bachelor’s Degree Will Raise Your Costs 

Because of this policy, your cost will go up. First, because recruiting will be harder, your recruiting costs will increase. Next, your starting salaries will also increase. Those with degrees have learned that the competition allows them to expect higher starting pay. Many grads will have huge student debt loads. After they are hired, they will likely be constantly pushing you for more money and quicker promotions. Finally, expect a bump in your retention costs. An alarming 55.3% of recent college graduates will leave their first job within the first year.

  1. The Skills That You Assume Come Automatically With All Bachelor’s Degrees Are Not Always There 

When you demand that candidates possess “any bachelor’s degree,” you demonstrate your unwavering faith in every University’s capability to produce a fully educated student (a faith that I can’t share). By allowing any bachelor’s degree to satisfy this qualification. You are stating that the degree’s relevance, quality, and recency don’t matter. And that a Harvard degree produces the same quality graduate as one from Nowhere University. Of course, this isn’t true because Google found that the fancy college you attended doesn’t matter. Their data shows that “the best students from any school outperformed the average students from major Ivy League universities.”

Many universities provide their graduates with up-to-date knowledge and strong citizenship skills. However, by allowing “any bachelor’s degree,” your recruiting universe has expanded to every University, including the weak ones. So it’s a huge mistake to assume that this requirement somehow assures that your company is getting job-prepared candidates or even good citizens. 

  1. A month separating the qualified from the unqualified makes no sense. 

Most companies consider having a degree as an on and off switch type. Their system disqualifies those that are only weeks from graduation (because technically, they have no degree yet). While at the same time, they accept as qualified those candidates with a bachelor’s degree that is literally decades-old and now largely irrelevant. So, requiring a bachelor’s degree as an absolute requirement, you lose out on the early recruiting opportunity for all those “that will soon be qualified.” They have already completed all their major coursework and will formally graduate in a month or two.

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Action Steps To Consider 

This section covers the six primary recommended action steps for determining which qualifications result in the best performing hires. 

Action step #1 – Simply stop requiring a bachelor’s degree

I’ve been a college professor for many decades, and during this time, I have learned to admire college students. However, I have also learned that college students can add great value. It’s a huge mistake to assume that a bachelor’s degree from a university qualifies its students for a technical, professional, or even hourly job. First, because so many noted individuals from Abraham Lincoln to Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg have been highly successful without a degree (or, in Lincoln’s case, ever attending college). There are simply too many weak universities, irrelevant majors, and disengaged students who will (but shouldn’t) qualify for your open jobs. 

Action Step #2 – If you do require a degree, specify which majors qualify

Hiring managers are often in love with college degrees. Recruiters may be forced to require a college degree. In those cases, it’s essential that you first do your homework. And run your internal correlations to see which majors actually predict success on the job. Then, list those specific majors that you will accept in your job posting. 

Action Step #3 – Be wary of both experience and knowledge 

We know that recent university grads primarily bring knowledge and the ability to learn quickly to a job. Unfortunately, that knowledge may be academic, theoretical, or outdated. The grad might not have the skills needed to execute the work tasks. In direct contrast, those without a degree generally bring years of experience and learned practices to a job. However, that experience may now also be outdated. Or their repetitive experience may now restrict them to doing the same things over and over. So in my view, it now makes sense to limit any assessment of education and experience. And to instead focus on directly assessing each candidate’s current and future skills/capabilities to perform on this job. 

Action Step #4 – Next, learn that job-related skills are the most important area to assess  

It’s important to note that there has been a recent shift toward a focus on assessing skills. This shift occurs because we all now operate in a constantly changing, volatile VUCA world. And with the accompanying multiple dramatic changes that we must all learn to handle. Unfortunately, it often means that the knowledge gained from education and the practices learned during previous work experience only a few years ago may now be obsolete. 

As a result of the last couple of years, the smartest talent management leaders have learned that the skills and capabilities of the candidate directly lead to on-the-job success. This shift occurs primarily because skill sets are the one assessment area that can change rapidly to meet your ever-changing needs. A second reason for this skills focus is that every employee already knows that all current skills will eventually become obsolete. So the employee knows that they will need to continually update themselves (with or without the company’s help) to stay continually employed. And what this means to hiring managers and recruiters is that current skills and rapid learning now become the most important candidate qualification factor. 

Action Step #5 Learn not to be concerned about where and how the skills were developed 

Now that we know about the increased importance of skills. We next need to learn not to be concerned about where or how the skills were developed. Previously, we thought that essential skills like coding or web development could only come with a computer science degree. However, now we know that it can be learned in a six-week boot camp. In contrast, we have also learned that some skills like social media influencing are learned “as you go.” Almost all that have successfully mastered these skills haven’t learned them in a University classroom. So focus on assessing current skills and don’t be concerned whether they were learned at a University, through work experience, or any other source.

Action Step #6 – Finally, directly assess the required skills of each candidate whether they have a degree or not 

Once you’ve begun focusing on assessing a candidate’s job-related skills, the first step is to understand the various ways to assess current skills. In my experience, the most effective approach is to give the candidate a real problem that they will face on the job to see which candidates have the skills required to resolve it. Next, there are now multiple online skills tests validated for both technical and increasingly important soft skills. Many tech companies have learned to use live whiteboard examples to assess a candidate’s problem-solving skills. Finally, consider asking a series of interview questions to assess each of the needed skills (for example, if you were hiring a replacement for this job, please list the soft skills you would expect a top candidate to have and explain why each is essential?). Still, others use peer interviews or have the candidate meet one-on-one with a top team member who assesses them. The key to long-term success is to track metrics on your skills assessments and refine them as you gather data on which ones work best.

If you can only do one thing© – during this tight labor market, drop the blanket bachelor’s requirement. And replace it with a list of the candidate skills you have found to be an accurate predictor of new-hire on-the-job performance. Then improve your screening processes for assessing each of those essential skills. 

Final Thoughts

We know that education is really important to recruiters. TheLadders used “eye tracking” to reveal that recruiters focus a great deal of time on education. To break this historical over-focus on education, start by immediately rethinking all of your degree requirements, especially those that are way too general. Overly high requirements will unnecessarily limit both your talent and diversity pools, which is unacceptable during our current extreme talent shortage!

Author’s Note

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About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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