Troy Groom, of Hyattsville, Md., was browsing social media this spring when he read something that made him perk up: Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced in March that the state government would strip bachelor’s degree requirements from thousands of job listings.
When Groom interviewed for his first IT job, he heard the dispiriting sentence that trips up so many careers: “I’m looking for someone with a bachelor’s degree.” But the hiring manager at that job looked past the unchecked box and took Groom on as a configuration management analyst.
That was one position, and one hiring manager. Who knew what would happen with the next job search? With Hogan’s move, however, the lack of a degree wasn’t an obstacle: It was a reason to be recruited.
“It means a lot,” Groom said of Hogan’s announcement. “There are a lot of companies limiting out a lot of talent. You can have a degree and not have the knowledge and skill sets.”
He followed a link to a job site called Stellarworx and applied for two IT positions with the state.
Thanks to a tight labor market, more good jobs are opening up to workers who lack a bachelor’s degree. A month after Maryland’s announcement, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) directed government agencies in his state to embrace hiring workers for skills, not degrees. Private sector employers have been rolling back B.A. requirements, too.
While the pandemic labor shortage has prompted more employers to welcome applications from workers without degrees, workforce advocates have been pushing back for years with some success against so-called degree inflation triggered by the Great Recession. When the economy tanked in 2008 and millions of laid-off workers began competing for scarce jobs, employers got pickier about who they hired and increasingly added four-year degree requirements to some “middle-skills” jobs that had frequently been filled by workers without degrees. (Middle-skills jobs, which include positions in fields such as health care, IT and sales, require some training or education beyond high school, although not necessarily a B.A.)
The increasing availability of good jobs for those without degrees coincides with challenges for traditional higher education. Enrollment, already on a decade-long decline, dropped precipitously during the pandemic, emptying a million seats at two-year and four-year colleges.
The lack of the credential has traditionally shut workers out of their desired professions and the wealth accumulation that comes with them. Sixty-two percent of Americans over 25 have no bachelor’s degree, and that number rises to 72 percent for Black adults and 79 percent for Hispanic adults. Any shift in the workforce to the advantage of workers without degrees carries obvious implications for economic mobility and equity.
However wide the door opens for workers without degrees, they won’t get through it without sufficient skills. Their success in the labor market depends upon finding an affordable pathway to develop those skills and the willingness of employers to keep prioritizing skills over degrees, even if a recession upends the job market.
Some workforce observers see reasons to believe employers will keep that door open for workers without degrees, even if the economy sends more college graduates their way.
When the Hogan administration heard how hard it was becoming for agencies to fill open positions, it partnered with a nonprofit organization called Opportunity@Work to recruit workers like Groom. Opportunity@Work calls such workers “STARs,” because they are Skilled Through Alternative Routes, like workforce training, community college courses and job experience.
Opportunity@Work connects STARs to training programs and works with employers to develop job listings for its Stellarworx employment website. The organization says 70 million Americans are STARs. Maryland labor secretary Tiffany Robinson estimated that 47 percent of Maryland workers are, too.
“We had a flood of applications on the first tranche of postings,” Robinson said.
Businesses like Google, IBM, and Accenture have also made high-profile moves to boost skills-based hiring. In a report earlier this year, the labor analytics firm Burning Glass found that just 9 percent of Accenture’s “computer support specialist” listings required a bachelor’s in 2021, down from 46 percent in 2017.
During the pandemic, employers ditched degree requirements at an even faster pace. In January, the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia examined a subset of middle-skill jobs and found that the proportion of job listings asking for a college degree dropped 4 percent between the first quarter of 2020 and the second quarter of 2021. In the Philly Fed’s estimation, that means 700,000 more of what it calls “opportunity jobs” — positions open to those lacking degrees that pay more than the U.S. yearly median of $36,660.
Employers could slap bachelor’s requirements on these kinds of listings again, if job seekers come flooding back. But Joseph Fuller, a professor of management at Harvard Business School, believes many of them likely won’t.
The Burning Glass report, which Fuller co-wrote, found that between 2017 and 2019, the number of positions requiring a B.A. dropped by more than 5 percent in roughly half of all middle-skills occupations. Only a quarter of these changes were “cyclical,” or attributable to the labor market. Sixty-three percent of the changes were deemed “potentially permanent” shifts in hiring practices.
But workers will still need some alternative way to build the skills required to get hired without a college degree. Many job seekers never get that chance because they are stuck in low-wage, low-skill jobs and, as Fuller put it, “can’t afford not to work.”
Fuller points to the work of Social Finance, a nonprofit that helps workers train without going under financially. In February, Google announced a $100 million partnership with Social Finance to help as many as 20,000 workers earn IT certificates. Social Finance will draw on nonprofit workforce groups such as YearUp and Merit America to train participants and counsel them toward employment.
Halid Hamadi, a 28-year-old Washington resident, stumbled upon a Merit America IT training program on Indeed.com. “I was like, ‘Okay, that’s too good to be true,’” he said. “Because in bold they said, ‘We’re looking for minorities that don’t have a bachelor’s degree.”
Hamadi had withdrawn from Pennsylvania State University in 2016 for financial reasons and taken a minimum wage retail job back home in Montgomery County in Maryland. Merit America provided a stipend that helped him afford a bus pass to attend job counseling sessions while he completed a 13-week Coursera program to earn a Google IT certification. His first job was a $45,000 “tier one” tech support position with a health care software developer. Two promotions later, he was an integration engineer making $75,000.
Another Merit America participant, 32-year-old Amber Wallace Dekie of Manassas, Va., graduated high school in 2008.
She worked as a nurse’s aide, clinical technician and pharmacy assistant, never earning more than $14 per hour. Then her boyfriend landed a good IT job, and she started looking for her own. Like Hamadi, she stumbled onto Merit America’s program browsing IT listings on Indeed.com, applied, and completed the training. With her new Google certification, she went to Stellarworx and found a $22-per-hour help desk job.
A bachelor’s degree still holds prestige as a ticket to the middle class, but its value has received increasing scrutiny. In the last several years, rising tuition and student loan debt have led more Americans to reconsider an investment in postsecondary education. When Gallup asked Americans in 2019 about the value of college degrees, just 51 percent answered “very important,” down from 70 percent in 2013.
Whether even more Americans opt out of four-year college will depend in part on the jobs available without that diploma. Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, said that a decade from now, 40 percent of jobs for those who lack a four-year degree but have some postsecondary education will be good — which he defined as paying at least $40,000 per year by the time the worker reaches age 40. That’s compared to 75 percent for four-year degree holders.
And he noted that while 30 percent of two-year degree holders earn more than those with four-year degrees, a bachelor’s degree still pays off in the long run through a significant advantage in lifetime earnings.
But, Carnevale said, “If you’re careful and make good choices, you don’t need a B.A.”
Still, while more workers may be finding good jobs without degrees, not all of them have foreclosed on the idea of returning to school. Some, like Wallace Dekie, worry they’ll hit a career ceiling without a college diploma.
“Certificates are huge in IT. A certificate will get you in the door. But if you’re going to go anywhere, you need that [B.A.] in addition,” she said.
She’s currently looking into an online bachelor’s program at Western Governors University, an online-only institution.
The strategy of earning certificates in the IT field has also worked out well so far for Groom, even if it depended on the good luck of having a hiring manager who looked past his lack of a college diploma. Groom has already earned six figures in one year. The Hogan administration’s move to hire for skills rather than degrees has opened another potential career path for him, and he hopes landing an IT job with the government will give him an entree to a career in cybersecurity.
Nonetheless, like Wallace Dekie, he’s hoping to bolster his career prospects even further.
Nearly three decades after leaving college the first time, he has enrolled at the University of Maryland Baltimore County to work toward his bachelor’s degree again.
This story about education requirements was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.