Read My Lips: No Bachelor’s Required

In a recently published article in the Hechinger Report, Lawrence Lanahan questions whether the new trend to remove a bachelor’s degree requirement for a job will continue.

Mr. Lanahan interviewed several people for this article who never earned a bachelor’s degree and who recently benefited in their jobs’ searches from the new trend. One gentleman with years of experience in retail management and IT applied for several IT jobs on Stellarworx after hearing that the state of Maryland was eliminating the four-year degree requirement for most of its IT jobs (Stellarworx claims to be the leading source for employers to find workers who are STARs – Skilled Through Alternative Routes).

Thanks to a tight labor market, employers are rolling back the four-year degree requirements for many jobs. In addition, Mr. Lanahan writes, the rolling back of the bachelor’s degree requirement coincides with the enrollment decline in the total number of students seeking an undergraduate degree.

Citing the statistic that 62 percent of Americans over the age of 25 have no bachelor’s degree (increasing to 72 percent for African Americans and 79 percent for Hispanics in the same age bracket), the relaxation of bachelor’s degree requirements should open “wealth opportunities” to those whose lack of a degree blocked them from higher wages.

However, degree waivers don’t imply that an applicant will get far without having the prerequisite skills expected by employers. Social Finance is a non-profit that has helped people without degrees find appropriate training through various social impact projects that they or their partners have funded in the 11 years since their founding. One of these projects is the Google Career Certificates Fund. Social Finance also teams with Year Up and Merit America for some of its retraining and training initiatives.

Opportunity@Work is another entity that promotes jobs for STARs. Mr. Lanahan cites their statistic that 70 million U.S. workers fall into the Skilled Through Alternative Route (STAR) category. The state of Maryland partnered with Opportunity@Work and the state estimated that more than half of their 38,000 jobs could qualify for eligibility for non-degree holders.

Diving into the statistics regarding degrees and the jobs that require them, Mr. Lanahan interviewed Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce. Mr. Carnevale predicts that 10 years from now, 40 percent of all jobs will require at least a bachelor’s degree and 30 percent of jobs will require some post-secondary education or training beyond a high school degree. Mr. Carnevale further elaborates that the key determinant for all jobs is what they pay. For four-year degree holders, he stated that 75 percent of all jobs will pay $40,000 per year or more. For those without a bachelor’s degree, only 40 percent of all jobs will pay $40,000 per year or more. Mr. Carnevale emphasizes that over the long run, a bachelor’s degree is a more important determinant of lifetime earnings than no bachelor’s degree.

Several of the people interviewed by Mr. Lanahan who took advantage of the relaxation of bachelor’s degree requirements recognize the importance of a bachelor’s degree and are either already enrolled or plan to enroll in a bachelor’s degree program to support their credentials in the event the pendulum swings the other way.

I support the many initiatives underway to train America’s workers for better jobs. I also support the initiatives underway at our more market savvy colleges and universities that are partnering with these training programs and others to recognize them for academic credit that could stack into an associates or bachelor’s degree. College is not for everyone, but it should be available for everyone who wants to attend college. For those choosing not to attend college, finding the right certificates and training initiatives that can make those early years post high school more affordable is important.

It’s important to note, however, that America is not going to solve its employment inequities by removing the requirements for a four-year degree. Mr. Lanahan’s article is relevant, but the situation is more complex than he acknowledges.

Lumina CEO Jamie Merisotis’ book, Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines outlined three major problems that need to be overcome for people to succeed in a future period when AI technology is replacing jobs. These three problems are:

  • Problem 1: It’s not clear what most credentials represent in terms of knowledge, skills, and abilities.
  • Problem 2: Employers, educators, and individuals all speak different languages when it comes to knowledge and skills.
  • Problem 3: Pathways through education and careers are either non-existent or nearly impossible for outsiders to fathom.

None of these problems have been solved although some of the companies mentioned here are part of the many who are working toward solutions.

It’s evident to me that learning will continue to be an important differentiator for income and jobs, regardless of your perspectives about the relevance or value of higher education. If you haven’t read Michelle Weise’s book, Long Life Learning, I suggest you take the time to order a copy. She writes that a learning ecosystem needs to be developed so that employers, employees, and educators can help prepare people for a much longer career where learning over a period of 60 plus years will be necessary to maintain your marketability as an employee. She recommended five guiding principles for employers and educators to consider as they partner to build a learning ecosystem. These principles are:

  • Navigable – people need to be able to “see” the current and future job market including the career pathways open to them based on their interests, skills, past training, and experiences.
  • Supportive – learners need comprehensive wrap around supports to help them overcome hurdles and manage multiple commitments and competing priorities.
  • Targeted – learners need access to a precise and relevant education tailored to their needs.
  • Integrated – working learners need the time, the funding, the confidence, and the resources to integrate education and training with their existing responsibilities.
  • Transparent – the hiring process must be transparent, open, and fair and allow job seekers to prove their competence and skills.

The good news is that there is evidence that employers and organizations like the ones mentioned above are working to build some of the items in this ecosystem. The bad news is that there are 70 million STARs, and we have a lot of work to do to bring all of them into a navigable, supportive, targeted, integrated, and transparent learning ecosystem. Until it’s built, employers will have the ability to change their degree requirements again and again. Until it’s built, I maintain that the permanence of reduced degree requirements has the same chance of success as George H.W. Bush’s “read my lips: no more taxes” campaign promise. I hope those that can build the learning ecosystem contribute more than just a pithy soundbite.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence