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Ditching degree requirements for jobs – what to do instead

Massachusetts has joined the wave of removing college degree prerequisites for many state jobs, echoing a broader trend in the private sector. Should your company do the same?

Suzanne Lucas
Suzanne Lucas

Suzanne, the Evil HR Lady, shares expertise, guidance, and insights based on 10+ years of experience in corporate human resources....

degree requirements and degree bias

Massachusetts has joined 13 other states in removing the college degree requirement from many government jobs.

The Brookings Institute describes this move as “low-cost ways to open state hiring processes to more applicants and improve economic mobility for qualified workers who have been largely excluded from state hiring systems.”

The private sector has also begun moving in this direction as well, with companies like Walmart leading the way.

In fact, a survey from Intelligent.com found that “nearly half” of all companies plan to drop the bachelor’s degree requirement from their jobs.

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Let’s break this down and see how (or if) this affects your business.

Degree bias

A college or university degree is a simple filtering tool that businesses have used for years as a proxy measurement of knowledge, skills, and ability. If a person has a degree, you do know a few things:

  1. Someone else determined they were smart enough to enter college (granted, some schools have open-admission policies, so depending on the school, this may not mean much.)
  2. They have the stick-to-it-iveness to finish a four-year degree. (This is pretty valuable for young people; not so valuable for someone with a resume showing years of work experience.)
  3. They were smart enough to graduate.

For specific degree required jobs – like accounting or engineering – it should indicate specific skills.

And while you can be an accountant but not a CPA, or an engineer but not a licensed Professional Engineer, it’s doubtful you could do the work without a degree – and in many cases, the degree and the license may be required for compliance.

With a liberal arts degree (I, myself, have two degrees in political science), the degree is a proxy for being able to write and think, but not once in my 25 years of professional work has someone asked me to explain Nietzsche’s religious philosophies and declaration that God is dead as it applies to HR.

(I got an A on my senior project about Nietzsche, by the way.)

It’s difficult to evaluate basic skills like writing and logical reasoning, and it’s easier to rely on universities to do that evaluation for companies. Plus, you don’t have to worry about choosing accurate exams for these skills; you can just check if they have finished school.

This, however, has led toward ‘degree bias’ that has been prevalent everywhere, including for baristas. You can see this bias in how AI does job descriptions.

For instance, I asked ChatGPT the following question:

Can you write a job description for the following positions for a manufacturing company with 100 people?

HR Manager

Accounts payable Manager

Shift Supervisor, manufacturing

Marketing director

Plant manager

The results came back with fairly good descriptions and the following degree requirements:

HR Manager: Degree in Human Resources or related field

Accounts Payable Manager: BS degree in Finance, Accounting or Business Administration.

Shift supervisor, manufacturing: High school diploma; degree in a technical, engineering, or relevant field will be an advantage.

Marketing director: BSc or MSc in Marketing or relevant field.

Plant manager: BS degree in Business Management, Industrial Management, Engineering, or related field

Only the shift supervisor didn’t require a degree and, even then, it still indicated that a degree would be beneficial.

Does removing the degree requirement change anything?

Removing a degree requirement certainly opens the jobs up to more people to apply but will it actually affect who gets the job?

Again, degrees are a quick proxy that hiring managers and recruiters alike may use when applicants with and without degrees apply for the position.

For example, I asked ChatGPT to evaluate two candidates. The resumes were identical, with the exception of a degree. I identified the second candidate as having a degree in Business.

When ChatGPT did the analysis it wrote:

Key Differences:

Education: The main difference lies in the educational background. Person 2 has a formal degree in Business, which may add value in terms of theoretical knowledge and business acumen.

Person 1’s Resume Lacks Education Details: If Person 1 also has a relevant degree or higher educational qualifications, this could level the playing field or even tilt it in their favor, depending on the specifics.

Recommendation:

If Educational Qualification is Important: Choose Person 2. The business degree might provide additional insights into business management, financial understanding, and strategic planning, which are valuable in a managerial role.

If Experience and Achievements are the Sole Criteria: It’s a tie. Both candidates demonstrate strong operational experience and achievements. In this case, other factors such as interpersonal skills, cultural fit, leadership style, and personal career goals should be considered in the final decision.

In today’s AI world, remember that the large language models were trained on Internet data, with a strong degree bias built in.

Incidentally, I ran the identical query in Bard, which did not reference the degree in its evaluation but did write:

While Person 1 also has a strong resume, Person 2’s overall experience, accomplishments, and leadership skills give them a slight edge. If you are looking for a manufacturing manager with a proven track record of improving efficiency, reducing costs, enhancing quality, and fostering a positive work environment, Person 2 would be a strong candidate.

Remember, the resumes were identical except for the degree, which Bard interpreted as giving Person 2 more skills.

What does this mean for your business?

Should you require degrees? It depends on your business model, of course, but consider how much is biased and how much is necessary. People with degrees will likely think they couldn’t do their jobs without the degree, introducing another layer of bias.

Take time to evaluate actual skills instead of assuming, as Bard did, that the degree automatically means additional experience.

Unless, of course, you have a desperate need for someone to discuss Nietzsche, then give me a call. I have a couple of unused degrees hanging in my office.

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