Most employers still require college degrees, but for how much longer?

College degrees still matter to employers. And while that might be a great sign for higher education, it might not be the best measure to solve the jobs crisis in America.

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The new Employability Report released by Cengage Group shows that 62% of all employers surveyed still believe a degree is a must-have for their candidates, despite the fact that less than 40% of all adults in the U.S. have a bachelor’s degree and many have the skills to do the required work via other credentials.

“Employers seem to be stuck in a contradictory cycle where they recognize that a degree is not an indicator of job readiness but nonetheless require one as part of their candidate screening process,” says Michael Hansen, CEO of Cengage Group. “This outdated mindset and degree stigma is not only widening the labor gap; it’s costing businesses time and money and turning away potential talent.”

The report, which highlights the requirements and needs of employers through 1,000 hiring managers, shows that two-thirds are being handcuffed by their own degree requirements and therefore failing to fill positions. Cengage researchers note that half of all recent graduates won’t even apply for entry-level positions because they don’t feel qualified. Extensive qualifications and job descriptions are likely additional turn-offs. Only 10% of managers said they openly tell candidates they do not require degrees for positions.

The bottom line, as Hansen and Cengage researchers point out, is that more than 11 million jobs remain unfilled, with millions of workers every month resigning across the U.S. Two of the most impacted fields—tech and healthcare—are primed for change, where certifications might be as relevant as degrees for entry-level jobs.

Technology, however, has been one of the least flexible fields when it comes to overlooking degree requirements. More than 80% of tech employers surveyed demand at least a two-year degree. More than half of those hiring for trades also want degrees. Nearly the same percentage of decision-makers in the healthcare industry, ravaged by the pandemic and with nurses striking and quitting en masse, still demand degrees.

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The irony is that three-quarters of employers said they offer education-related opportunities for employees. So why, then, would they turn away potentially talented workers at the ground level rather than signing them on and subsequently walking them to further credentials and degrees while training them? Some, like Google, aren’t. They are waiving degree requirements. Others from the tech and health sectors surveyed said they would consider interviewing candidates with the skills to do the job although the degree standard might still stand in the way.

“Employers need to make changes to hiring practices,” Hansen says. “The future of work—thanks to the accelerating pace of technological change—will not depend only on a degree. It will instead focus on a candidate’s skills, experiences and potential to upskill or train in new fields. However, removing degree requirements is not a simple ‘top-down’ policy change; it requires a full-blown change effort to make sure hiring managers are actually comfortable overturning a decades-old practice.”

While degree requirements might sound fantastic to higher education leaders—a shocking 16% of hiring managers said they continue the practice because “it has always been this way”—Cengage’s survey does indicate that managers are looking at two factors above degrees (26%) when considering candidates: skills credentials (43%) and real-world experience (28%).

In a separate survey, Cengage revealed that 75% of graduates have not been happy with their college paths, either because of time spent and cost or because their major didn’t translate well into the job market. Researchers note that continued partnerships with employers are key to getting those students on the right paths and fueling pipelines of talent to critical positions.

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Chris Burt
Chris Burt is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration, covering higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to joining LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as an editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.