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Maryland drops degree requirement from some jobs, adding to debate over value of college

A new initiative will target workers who don’t have a four-year degree but have other skills and experience

The Shoemaker Building at the University of Maryland campus at College Park. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)
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Gov. Larry Hogan’s recent announcement that Maryland would no longer require college degrees for many state jobs was welcomed by some as a common-sense way to address labor shortages and provide greater opportunities for skilled workers, and questioned by others who worried it lowered standards.

The move highlighted the ongoing debate over the value of higher education.

Touted by the governor as the first such effort in the country, the initiative made hundreds of job openings immediately available to people who don’t have a four-year degree but have other experience or training.

In announcing the move, Hogan (R) said “Through these efforts … we are ensuring that qualified, nondegree candidates are regularly being considered for these career-changing opportunities.” A spokesman for the governor did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday.

“It’s about time!” one user wrote on social media, celebrating that it would reward competence rather than credentials. “Arbitrary degree and licensing requirements stifle economic growth and freedom,” another person wrote.

Others, however, worried the move devalued the college educations many worked hard to earn — and went into debt to attain — and reflected increasing skepticism about academia.

“Education has been seen as a pillar of the American Dream,” Frederick R. Lynch, an associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, said. “Maybe it isn’t anymore.”

After Hogan’s announcement, Lynch wrote on Twitter, “Reducing incentives for higher education is now considered a great idea? …Ignores cultural, political and social benefits of higher education. Sad.”

Many people responded with skepticism, he said, calling college a racket, and questioning its worth.

Bridgette Gray, chief customer officer at Opportunity@Work, the nonprofit partnering with Maryland to identify and recruit skilled workers, said she was shocked by some of the criticism of the announcement that she heard, including that the state was dumbing-down the workforce.

People who can demonstrate that they have skills should be able to compete for jobs, she said. “No college does not equal no skills.”

The national debate over the value of higher education is infused with politics, both from the right and left.

In a 2019 Gallup survey, Republicans were less likely than Democrats to say college is very important, and the overall share of adults who felt that way had dropped to 51 percent from 70 percent several years earlier. Conservative legislators in some states have criticized universities for bringing ideological bias into academia and not doing enough to prepare students for careers. And a common liberal complaint is that many colleges reinforce the status quo, with an expensive education affordable only to affluent families.

Still, a 2021 Lumina-Gallup study expected to be released in April found that 44 percent of adults ages 18 to 59 who don’t have a college degree said that compared with 20 years ago, it is more important to have a two-year or four-year college degree in order to have a successful career.

Removing barriers to jobs is a good idea, Lynch said, but education has provided upward mobility for tens of millions of minorities and women — and many benefits outside of work, such as critical thinking, civic engagement, healthy behavior and so on.

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In Maryland, state officials will partner with Opportunity@Work to identify people with skills for about 300 jobs such as information technology, customer service and administrative roles. Those skills might have come through previous work experience, community college, military service or other training. The wages will remain the same, officials said.

“We’re not an anti-college organization at all,” Gray said. “We believe in college. But we believe that college cannot be the only path to success,” and that employers shouldn’t in effect pull up a drawbridge by requiring degrees rather than considering other qualifications.

Political leaders are always talking about a talent shortage, she said, but she argues there is no shortage: Employers just need to rethink how they find that talent.

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The changing economy has driven the need for more skilled workers in recent decades, Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, said.

In the 1970s, most jobs didn’t require a college degree. “Now it has literally flipped,” he said.

The share of jobs requiring postsecondary education went from just under one-third in 1983 to nearly two-thirds in 2021, and is projected to increase to 72 percent by 2031, Carnevale said. And in 1980-1981, fewer than a million bachelor’s degrees were awarded, but that number had more than doubled by 2018-2019.

Despite historical resistance to the idea of requiring credentials, the United States has become a credentialed society, he said.

And that leads to credentialism, he argued, with “unjust barriers to upward mobility for lots of people.”

But as to the question of whether employers are just hiring degrees, Carnevale said the overwhelming evidence is no, they are not. “They in fact need these skills from people.”

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Jonathan Butcher, an education researcher at the Heritage Foundation, said there has been an overemphasis on the idea of college as a necessity, with other avenues to success.

Over the past several decades, colleges have invested lots of money into things that have nothing to do with the classroom, Butcher said. “That has been very distracting, if not harmful in some cases,” he said. In some surveys, students have said they were fearful about speaking their mind in class, for example, he said.

“There’s a right-wing critique, there’s a left-wing critique,” of college, Lynch said. “There’s some validity to both sides,” especially with the fast-rising cost of higher education.

He thinks the results beyond career and wages are important. “There are non-job benefits that stem from a college education that we don’t think about often enough … Is college worth it in terms of the rest of your life?”

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