Do entry-level candidates really need college degrees?

by HCA23 Mar 2017

When the job market was flooded with desperate applicants, many employers required college degrees for entry-level jobs. There was a certain cruel logic to it: Hey, might as well get the best.

The job market is much tighter now, but it appears that employers haven't relaxed their hiring criteria. That could explain why 43% say finding enough candidates is a top challenge in filling entry-level jobs. It's a classic example of shooting yourself in the foot, but of course it's also bad for the young people without college degrees who can't get onto the bottom rung of the career ladder.

Psychology, and office politics, may be at work here. No human resources person wants to be seen lowering hiring standards. "The past couple of decades there was a pretty significant trend toward up-credentialing," says Abigail Carleton, a managing director at the Rockefeller Foundation. "There’s a certain amount of path dependency once you start to put new requirements in. It would be harder to take them out than to put them in.

"The foundation released a survey today that sheds light on the damage that can be done by insisting on college diplomas for jobs that don't really require them. It interviewed a thousand young people, half recent college graduates and half "opportunity youth"—unemployed high school graduates. It also interviewed some HR types and C-suite executives.

Half of the recent college grads (49%, to be precise) said they didn't have to go to college to acquire the skills they needed for their current jobs, and 86% of them said they were learning things on the job that they didn't learn in college. Three-quarters of the opportunity youth agreed that not having a college degree limited their options.

"Screening for college degrees in the hiring process denies opportunity youth the ability to get a foot in the door, build skills on the job, and create more meaningful opportunities for life-long career success," the report said. Instead, they fall farther and farther behind.

Their predicament is illustrated by a striking number in the report: 75% of the employers surveyed said the diploma is an effective way to narrow the pool of applicants and speed up the hiring process.

More than 60% said a college degree is an effective way to assess an applicant's work ethic, personal skills, and mental capacity. But if a diploma means you're bright and hard-working, there's a danger of assuming that without one you're not.

The Rockefeller Foundation is supporting research on two ways hiring departments could find good people without demanding a college degree. In one approach, a Rockefeller grantee named Incandescent is partnering with a company called Knack that uses customized video games to assess applicants' skills. In a pilot involving 600 opportunity youth, 83% performed at or above the level of a company's average performers for one or more entry-level jobs.

Using another approach, Innovate+Educate, which is based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, conducted a job fair last spring in Albuquerque in which resumes were not only not required, but prohibited. The idea was to rely strictly on skills assessment, levelling the playing field for opportunity youth who lacked experience. Twenty employers and about 600 applicants participated. A little over half got jobs, and about 260 still have them, Carleton says.


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