Why dropping college degree requirements isn’t actually working

Nearly half of employers say they are dropping college degree requirements for some of their roles, and nearly three-quarters of organizations note they are moving to skills-based hiring. But despite these pronouncements, there has been little actual advancement in hiring candidates without a college degree, according to a new joint report by the Burning Glass Institute and Harvard Business School’s Managing the Future of Work Project.

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According to the research, when employers drop a college degree requirement for a role, they only increase the number of non-degreed hires in such roles by 3.5 percentage points, on average. The report pulled data from Lightcast’s dataset of 316 million online job postings since 2012 and Burning Glass Institute’s dataset of 65 million resumes and career histories.

Experts say the lack of progress in hiring non-degreed workers stems in part from the fact that—other than removing college degree requirements from job postings—many employers have failed to change their underlying hiring practices and processes. For example, experts note that many organizations do not provide manager training on how to evaluate candidates without considering their educational background.

And without strong executive buy-in, a push to hire non-degreed talent likely won’t gain traction, says Matt Sigelman, president of the Burning Glass Institute and co-author of the report.

“What happens in all too many cases is that the CEO stands up in a public forum and makes a big pronouncement that degrees won’t be required. The organization snaps to attention to do what the CEO wants. Then, 12 months later, the CEO’s attention is on the next priority and nobody is paying attention to this anymore,” Sigelman explains. “The firm relapses because it never actually changed its hiring processes.”

The report shows HR leaders have much more work to do to change those foundational processes in order to fuel sustainable recruiting, hiring and promotion of non-degreed candidates.

How HR can bolster efforts to hire non-college graduates

When approached strategically, hiring non-degreed talent can help employers expand and diversify the talent pool, lean into skills-based hiring and drive retention. For example, 58% of non-degreed employees working in positions that previously required college degrees have a higher two-year retention rate than their college-educated colleagues by 10 percentage points, according to the report.

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“We also found it was a life-changing boost for people without degrees hired into these roles,” says Sigelman. “On average, they were making about 25% more than they were before.”

Joseph Fuller, professor of management practice at Harvard Business School and co-author of the report, adds that lower-wage workers are more likely to lack a college degree and come from a diverse background compared to middle—or higher-wage workers.

Matt Sigelman
Matt Sigelman, Burning Glass Institute

However, to truly effect sustainable change for these populations, organizations need to first address the underlying hiring and talent management infrastructure that favors degree holders.

“We really want to impress on people that just removing the requirement, while a step in the direction of goodness and a meritorious thing, is not enough if you’re not actually leading to any change,” Fuller says.


The study found that 45% of employers that eliminated college degree requirements from their job postings between 2014 and 2023 did not meaningfully change their hiring patterns to increase their non-degreed workforce. Another 20% of employers are backsliders that reinstated requirements that candidates have college degrees for all or some of their positions.

About one-third of employers that dropped college degree requirements are effectively following through, a population the report terms “leaders in skills-based hiring.” Such organizations increased new non-degree hires by an average of 18%.

Promote from within

The report states that Yelp, Saks Fifth Avenue, Apple, Walmart, General Motors and Target are among those deemed leaders in skills-based hiring.

Fuller says these organizations made efforts to create pathways to promote non-degreed talent from within, adding that consistent, high-level sponsorship by executives is “absolutely essential.”

Joseph Fuller
Joseph Fuller, Harvard Business School

“I should be trying to promote that person who already works for us and has already shown commitment,” Fuller says. “Why wouldn’t I be trying to grow my own instead of always going to the farm stand to buy something for my basket?”

Sigelman says promoting non-degreed employees offers several benefits. There is a lower risk of hiring the wrong person because the employee is a known quantity, he explains. Internal promotions can also give managers the confidence to hire more non-degreed employees when additional openings come up.

“If managers can build muscle around promoting people from within who might be from alternative backgrounds, then you’re going to get used to the notion that the degree may not be all that valuable in predicting who’s going to be a great employee,” Sigelman says.

Celebrate achievements of non-degreed employees

Build a culture that celebrates employees who come from alternative backgrounds, Siegelman says. For example, employers could promote high-performing employees without college degrees in recruiting pamphlets and other talent acquisition materials shared with hiring managers across the organization, as well as use company townhalls as a platform to recognize such workers. Until hiring managers become aware that a lot of their colleagues whom they respect do not have a college degree, it’s going to be hard for them to feel comfortable taking a perceived risk in hiring or promoting a candidate or employee without a degree, Sigelman says.

Work with managers to change the hiring process

Before initiating a search, define what the acceptable evidence of someone’s mastery of skills should look like, Sigelman says. Incorporate more autonomous work samples and assessments into the evaluation process so hiring managers have more data and information to use when selecting a candidate rather than basing it on an applicant’s resume and perceived background, Sigelman adds.

Recruit through sites beyond LinkedIn

Although LinkedIn can be a great tool for recruiting, non-degree holders are under-represented on it, Fuller says. Instead, talent acquisition professionals should identify other sites that attract different populations and build the organization’s brand there, he suggests. HR should be posting jobs on American Job Centers, Hired, Indeed or Zip Recruiter, for example, rather than at career development offices at universities, he notes. An applicant pool can be inadvertently shaped in a way that favors college graduates based on where HR posts its job openings, Fuller says.

Bolster the onboarding process

For new hires without a college degree, HR can augment the onboarding process or provide additional training to help level the playing field, Fuller says. For example, HR or hiring managers can steer these employees to corporate learning centers if they would like strengthen writing, communication or public speaking skills, which are often targeted through college classes, Fuller notes.

Learn more about ways to support employees who have taken alternative career paths at Human Resource Executive’s Elevate People Ignite Change conference, April 24-26, at Bellagio, Las Vegas. Sit in on the Finding and Developing Engaged Talent: The Power of Employee Resource Group Leaders session to see if an ERG for non-degreed employees makes sense for your organization.

Dawn Kawamoto, Human Resource Executive
Dawn Kawamoto
Dawn Kawamoto is HR Editor of Human Resource Executive. She is an award-winning journalist who has covered technology business news for such publications as CNET and has covered the HR and careers industry for such organizations as Dice and Built In prior to joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected] and below on social media.