For a long time, a four-year college degree was considered a golden ticket to a prosperous career. But this ticket seems to be losing its luster. Major players across various industries — from tech giants like Amazon to airlines such as Delta and even publishers like Penguin Random House — are reevaluating the necessity of a bachelor's degree for many roles. Removing the degree requirement is a significant change that shouldn't be made hastily. While it undoubtedly broadens your applicant pool, it also risks onboarding talent that may not meet your expectations. On the other hand, plenty of people who haven’t completed university programs have professional experience or other qualifications that equal or surpass the equivalent of a four-year degree. So what's driving this emerging trend? And how can you adopt this approach without compromising the quality of your hires?
Let’s start by stating the obvious: Some jobs will always require educational credentials. No one wants a self-taught surgeon removing their appendix or an uncredentialed accountant auditing their tax returns. But for many roles, a college degree has never been specifically what employers need. Instead, it’s been more of a filter in the hiring process, a convenient means to narrow down the candidate pool. That being so, what are the advantages of changing your approach now? Gaining access to more workers. Today’s labor market remains extremely tight. According to the latest Robert Half Salary Guide, an overwhelming 93% of managers said they struggle to find the talent they need. One way to escape this predicament? Widen the pool of suitable candidates. The latest census data shows that only 37% of Americans aged 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree. By eliminating this requirement, you suddenly tap into a previously overlooked segment of the workforce. Here’s another angle to ponder. While college degrees can pay off, they don’t always, and young people know this. College enrollment rates are falling, and it’s a fair prediction that the pool of degreed candidates may shrink even further in the coming years. Employers prioritizing degrees might soon grapple with an even tighter talent market. Changing with the times. According to The Burning Glass Institute’s 2022 report on changes in degree requirements, “The accelerating rate of technological change is reshaping skills requirements faster than [degree] providers can respond.” As a result, 63% of the middle-income jobs they surveyed were dropping the degree requirement. Bottom line: The way we work and the tools we use are undergoing profound changes. It’s time to reassess the kind of skills a job requires — and the assumption that a degree ensures them. Building a more diverse workforce. Research consistently shows that diverse workforces outperform homogeneous ones. They exhibit higher levels of competency, more creative problem-solving abilities, genuine innovation and superior decision-making skills. If educational status doesn’t always come to mind when considering diversity, it should. High college entry barriers often disproportionately affect underrepresented groups. By focusing solely on degree-holders, you risk excluding those who could bring invaluable new perspectives to your organization.
Given these insights, what are some best practices for opening your doors to candidates without college degrees? Identify critical skills for the role. The first step is clearly defining the skills necessary for success in the position. Collaborate with team members who understand the role's demands. Break down the job responsibilities and match them with the skills needed to perform them effectively. And it's not just about what's needed today — try to look ahead too. How might this role change with new market trends or tech advances? Recognize skills in different backgrounds. When assessing candidates, look for real-world examples of the skills you need. Dive into their past roles, even in entirely different fields, and consider what they’ve done outside of work, like volunteering.  It's all about recognizing that people can pick up valuable skills in all sorts of places, not just in a lecture hall. Put a premium on soft skills. While technical skills are necessary, soft skills such as communication, teamwork, problem-solving and adaptability matter, too. They often dictate whether someone will gel with your team and roll with the punches or flounder when the going gets tough. To get a feel for these skills, try asking candidates about real situations they've faced or how they’d handle hypothetical scenarios. Eliminate unnecessary requirements. Take a red pen to your job postings so they list only essential skills and qualifications. Avoid the temptation to include a long list of nice-to-haves that could make potentially excellent candidates feel underqualified and deter them from applying. Also consider the potential for on-the-job learning, especially for skills that can be developed quickly or through company-provided training. Don’t undervalue alternative credentials. Beyond bachelor’s degrees, there’s a world of other options like two-year associate degrees and stackable micro-credentials. Digital badges from platforms like Coursera and LinkedIn are gaining traction, so staying tuned to what's emerging in your field is smart. When you see these nontraditional credentials on a resume, they're not just qualifications — they signal a candidate's drive for professional growth and their personal discipline to acquire new skills on their own time.
Don’t be afraid to drop the four-year degree requirement for at least some of your roles. Craft a hiring strategy that zeroes in on essential skills and real-world experience. By expanding your talent pool, you’re not just filling roles — you’re preparing your organization for a new era of innovation and diversity.