Employers hesitate to move away from college degrees

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Employers don’t think college degrees, in general, indicate work readiness, yet they are reluctant to use non-degree credentials in their hiring process, according to a new report. This, in turn, is what keeps many students pursuing a degree instead of other credentials, as they see that’s what employees seek in job candidates.

Some 68% of employers report they want to hire from non-degree pathways, with 72% saying they don’t see a degree as a reliable way to gauge a job candidate’s skills. Yet more than half (52%) still hire from degree programs because they believe it’s a less risky choice when hiring, according to a report commissioned by American Student Assistance and Jobs for the Future. The research by Morning Consult comprised interviews and baseline surveys of 1,500 Gen Z teens and more than 600 employers.

Gen Z students say they generally feel the same about degrees, but they stick with them because that’s what employers want. More than one-third (37%) say they default to degree programs because they believe employers favor degrees. Most of them (65%) also fear there is too much risk associated with choosing the wrong non-degree postsecondary pathway, the report says.

Interest in non-degrees has been growing among employers, especially as they struggle to find enough skilled workers. An increase among some large employers like Amazon and Wal-Mart to offer their own non-degree credentials has brought the discussion about degrees-vs.-non-degrees to the forefront again. This spring, Maryland announced that it will reduce the four-year degree requirement for thousands of state jobs in IT, administrative and customer service sectors.

Employers are also looking at it from an equity lens, acknowledging that opening to non-degree programs could provide a path for underrepresented populations. In addition, it would offer opportunities for incumbent workers who may not have degrees to advance in their careers at a company.

Not yet ready to change

Yet, despite the interest, many employers are staying with traditional hiring practices. More than half (54%) of employers say they feel it is “less risky to hire someone with a college degree.” And one-third of employers (33%) note that the “risk of hiring the wrong candidate” is a significant barrier to hiring non-degree candidates, the report says.

Focus group conversations revealed that it’s usually the call of upper management when a company goes outside the box in its hiring practices. One employer note hiring people from non-degree pathways depends “solely on the visionaries” at the company.

The issue of college costs is also part of the conversation, especially on the students’ side. Only 44% of first-time bachelor’s degree recipients complete their degree in four years or less, and for more than one-third (36%) it takes five to 10 years to do so, according to the report. Education and workforce advocates argue that quality non-degree programs develop in-demand skills and certify job readiness faster and at less cost.

More info needed

A major impediment for employers in using non-degree credentials is they don’t have enough information about their value.

“Absent an understanding of how to vet and translate them, employers may remain slow to accept non-degree credentials in their screening processes,” the report says. “That hesitancy perpetuates an access barrier that ultimately prevents people from a wide diversity of backgrounds and experiences earned outside the fold of higher education from entering or succeeding in the workforce.”

The report provides six recommendations that can help prompt a shift toward more employers using non-degree credentials in their hiring. Among them are: more research; a narrative change around how options are presented to young people and to the workforce; and changes in policy and funding for workforce development programs. That includes expanding the Pell Grant program to cover high-quality, short-term credentialing programs.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
Matthew Dembicki edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.