As standard practice, most white-collar job descriptions include the words “BA or BS” graduate degree required. In the past, having a college degree signified a candidate was more professional, they had acquired knowledge beyond the basics taught in high school, and in some cases had acquired skills in a skill discipline area. The degree was also a way to evaluate a candidate’s maturity and ability to self-manage and showed that the candidate finished what they started. One could also argue that the degree requirement ensured that the majority of candidates were from a particular economic background or ethnic group.
In today’s world, what does the undergraduate degree represent? I have asked employers what advantages a college degree gives a candidate? There is no question that some positions require knowledge or qualifications that can only be gained by completing discipline-specific course work at a four-year institution and is signified a bachelor level degree. However, for others, when pressed, most hiring managers were unable to articulate what skills that a B.S. or a B.A. degree represented that a candidate could not acquire in other ways. Of the 69.7% of high school graduates that attend college, The National Center for Education Statistics reports that only 58% of those graduate within six years. Thes numbers mean that just over half of the population is automatically disqualified from applying for most “white-collar jobs.”
Asked another way, what does an employer think is missing in a candidate with relevant work experience, some post-secondary education, a technical or military certification that has not earned a traditional 4-year degree? The answer was the same. Hiring managers couldn’t articulate what was lacking in these otherwise qualified candidates.
With the rising cost of higher education, many young people are choosing to attend technical or certification programs that teach skills that are in demand and can land them a living wage job in a much shorter time at a significantly lower cost.
The spotlight is on student debt and the impact this debt is having on our economy. Student loan debt is estimated to be $1.53 trillion, with one in four Americans owing $38 thousand in student loans *.
The pressure to obtain a four-year degree is based on a business-driven outdated narrative promising that a degree will result in increased earning power. This storyline fails to include a footnote that exposes that the additional income made by having a degree will be committed to paying off the student debt incurred to obtain the qualification.
Why aren’t we pressing employers to answer the fundamental question of “Why” is the four-year degree imperative? This simple question could have a tremendous impact on our economy and deserves a more in-depth investigation.
Articulating the skills and behaviors needed to perform a specific function rather than leveraging a job description template listing archaic standard qualifications will improve the quality of the hire, reduce training cost, and improve retention.
Employers can drive change that would have a meaningful economic impact in this country by examing their real labor needs. Why aren’t we asking them to do it?