Need a college degree to get a job? These companies say skills matter more

BOSTON — Ryan Tillman-French sat at his seventh-floor desk early on a Thursday morning, the skyscrapers of downtown Boston crowding the windows behind him.

On a laptop in the nearly empty office, he worked on code for a webpage he was developing for his employer, the learning materials company Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. In half an hour, he needed to join a conference call about changes to the company’s website.

He had been at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for four months. Coding he liked. Meetings, not so much.

“That’s one thing I wasn’t warned about when it comes to the corporate world,” he said. “So many meetings.”

Tillman-French, 26, grew up in a Detroit neighborhood where few people around him had jobs. He received an associate degree, hoping to eventually get a bachelor’s and work as a financial adviser. Instead, he bounced from one unfulfilling job to the next in the hospitality and restaurant industries. In the fall of 2017, he moved to Boston and enrolled in a community college, planning to transfer to a four-year program.

One day, a friend forwarded an email about Resilient Coders, a boot camp that trains people of color for web development and software engineering jobs. On a lark, Tillman-French went to a Resilient Coders hackathon, and the passionate staff there sold him on the opportunity. After he finished the 14-week program, he said, he had over two dozen interviews. Three employers asked him back. Only Houghton Mifflin Harcourt made an offer.

Several years ago, Tillman-French’s résumé would likely have ended up in the trash. Until last summer, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt screened out web developer applicants who lacked a four-year degree.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt wasn’t alone in that practice. The previous decade saw a spike in the number of job listings requiring a bachelor’s degree, even for so-called middle-skills jobs — think executive secretaries, production supervisors, IT help-desk workers — that have traditionally been filled by workers with an associate degree or less. Analysts say that this “degree inflation,” as they call it, has shrunk opportunities for upward mobility for Americans without four-year degrees.

But now some workforce organizations, researchers and regional civic leaders are pushing back — persuading companies to look beyond academic credentials and to instead hire people based on their skills. A growing number of businesses are listening. In the past few years, Apple, Google, IBM and other high-profile companies have stripped the bachelor’s degree requirement from many of their positions.

If this movement continues to gather steam, researchers say, it could aid not only individual job seekers but also the U.S. economy by helping businesses hold onto workers and by boosting the middle class.


In 2014, the labor market analysis firm Burning Glass Technologies tried to capture the extent of degree inflation. The firm compared the percentage of people in a given occupation (say, executive assistant) who have a bachelor’s degree with the percentage of job listings for that occupation requiring a bachelor’s degree.

“Who you have working for you and who you want to have working for you in the future aren't always the same,” said Burning Glass CEO Matthew Sigelman.

Sigelman found that 19 percent of current executive assistants had a bachelor’s degree, but that 65 percent of job listings for the position asked for one — a “credentials gap” of 46 percent. In surveying broader groups of occupations, Burning Glass found a credentials gap of 26 percent for management jobs, 21 percent for computer and math jobs and 13 percent for sales jobs.

In late 2017, a research project led by the Harvard Business School, a workforce organization called Grads of Life and the consulting firm Accenture concluded in a report, “Dismissed by Degrees,” that employers “appear to be closing off their access to the two-thirds of the U.S. workforce that does not have a four-year college degree.” The researchers estimated that 6.2 million jobs were at risk of degree inflation. They cited research showingthat the proportion of job listings requiring a four-year degree increased by more than 10 percentage points from 2007 to 2010.

That timespan should look familiar: The Great Recession lasted from December 2007 to June 2009. Unemployment spiked, and employers stocked up on college graduates without having to pay a premium in wages. “Some of that is legitimate, where the job is getting more technical,” said “Dismissed by Degrees” co-author Joe Fuller, a Harvard Business School professor. But employers want more than technical skills; they want characteristics like attention to detail, problem solving, working with a team. “One of the major reasons degree inflation is so common is because employers use it as proxy for those kinds of soft skills,” Fuller said.

Using a four-year degree as a proxy for employability shuts out the most economically vulnerable job seekers. It hurts employers, too, Fuller and his Harvard colleague, researcher Manjari Raman, found in their report. Degree-holders command an 11 to 30 percent wage premium yet fail to justify that premium in productivity and other outcomes. It takes longer to fill jobs when filtering for four-year degrees, and degree-holders change jobs more quickly. Nonetheless, according to Harvard’s survey of 600 business and human resource leaders, 61 percent of respondents reported tossing resumes without four-year degrees, even if the applicant was qualified.

That survey also revealed that 63 percent of respondents had trouble filling middle-skills jobs. Andy Van Kleunen, CEO of the National Skills Coalition, attributed that trouble to public policies that push bachelor’s degrees as a one-size-fits-all solution rather than training workers for specific middle-skill positions. The National Skills Coalition, which lobbies policymakers and employers to invest in workers’ skills, wants federal Pell Grants to be available not just for students seeking degrees but also for workers who want to take short-term courses that they could apply on the job immediately.

But part of employers’ inability to fill middle-skills jobs can be attributed to degree inflation. Fuller’s report encouraged employers to push back against the trend: “Once the logic of resisting degree inflation takes root in an organization, it soon permeates different aspects of the organization’s culture — and eventually embeds itself at the heart of its strategy,” the report states.


After years of being criticized for a lack of diversity, companies — especially in the technology world — are looking for ways to make their workplaces more inclusive. And a tight labor market — there were more than 7 million job openings in the U.S. as of February— has employers in many sectors scrambling for talent.

“For decades, at many companies that I worked for, I wasn’t allowed to hire unless somebody had a four-year degree,” said Trish Torizzo, the chief information officer for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. But today, she said, “supply is so low that people are almost being forced to think more creatively about how they operate.”

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt stripped the four-year degree requirement from information technology positions — including web developer — last summer, and the number of applications that made it through their initial screening doubled. To screen candidates, the company looks for a “tech stack”: a list of programming languages and tools a candidate knows.

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