Degree Inflation: We Need To Stop Equating Success With a Four-Year Degree

The story of job requirements in the United States has been a dynamic one. Over the past few decades, a four-year college degree has been seen as the golden ticket to a good job. However, this perception dates back to the 1980s, when globalization and automation began to revolutionize the world’s work landscape.

These changes prompted businesses to look for employees with a broader set of social skills or “soft skills.” The four-year college degree became a convenient proxy for these skills, and this trend only intensified during the Great Recession of the late 2000s.

With a surplus of job seekers, employers could afford to be more selective, leading to a phenomenon termed “degree inflation”.

The Problem with Degree Inflation

As highlighted in a recent Vox report, degree inflation, or the rising demand for degrees for jobs that formerly didn’t require them, carries significant consequences.

It effectively bars a substantial population from jobs they are capable of performing, despite lacking the traditionally perceived necessary credentials.

This practice restricts access to opportunities and creates a workforce that could potentially be more diverse in skills and experiences if the qualifications were more inclusive.

Excluding Perfectly Capable Workers

This phenomenon is further explored in the 2017 study Dismissed by Degrees by Harvard Business School, which found that degree inflation excludes capable workers from today’s economy, increases costs for businesses, and perpetuates social inequities.

Organizations such as Grads of Life and Opportunity@Work emerged to challenge this trend and promote more inclusive hiring practices. They introduced the term “STARs” (Skilled Through Alternative Routes) to refer to workers who have gained skills through unconventional methods, circumventing the traditional four-year degree path.

Factors Accelerating Hiring Reform

Several factors have accelerated the shift towards more inclusive hiring practices.

A tightening labor market has made it necessary for employers to look beyond the traditional pool of degreed candidates. The COVID-19 pandemic further exposed the need for a diverse range of skills and adaptability in the workforce.

Furthermore, the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent focus on systemic racism sparked a critical examination of hiring practices. Employers began to recognize the need to remove barriers that disproportionately affect racial and ethnic minority groups, including degree requirements.

An Emerging Degree Reset?

There are promising signs that employers are moving towards an “emerging degree reset”, a shift in focus from degrees to skills. More companies are beginning to value skills over degrees and are opening their doors to STARs. However, the process is far from straightforward.

The study Skill Shift: Automation and the Future of the Workforce by the McKinsey Global Institute underscores this point. It highlights the growing importance of social and emotional skills alongside technical abilities.

As businesses recognize the need for these skills, they’re starting to look beyond candidates with traditional four-year degrees and opening their doors to those who have acquired their skills through alternative routes.

Changing these perceptions is a daunting task, but one that advocates argue is necessary for a more inclusive and diverse workforce.

The Road Ahead

The move away from degree requirements is gaining momentum, but there is still a long way to go.

Advocates caution against reverting to flawed hiring proxies, especially in times of economic uncertainty. They stress the importance of maintaining focus on skills-based hiring, ensuring that opportunities are open to all those who have the ability, regardless of how they acquired their skills.

In conclusion, the shift away from needing a four-year degree is not just about hiring reform. It’s about broader access to opportunities, fostering diversity, and recognizing the value of different paths to skill acquisition.

As this trend continues, it will be fascinating to see how the landscape of job requirements evolves in the future.

This article was produced by TPR Teaching.


Caitriona Maria is an education writer and founder of TPR Teaching, crafting inspiring pieces that promote the importance of developing new skills. For 7 years, she has been committed to providing students with the best learning opportunities possible, both domestically and abroad. Dedicated to unlocking students' potential, Caitriona has taught English in several countries and continues to explore new cultures through her travels.

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