Deflating Degree Inflation

by Robin Beres

In May 2021, The Harvard Business Review featured a column by Michael Hansen, CEO of Cengage Learning titled, “The U.S. Education System Isn’t Giving Students What Employers Need.”

Hansen argued that today’s education system is not equipping students “with the skills and capabilities to prepare for a career where they can obtain financial stability.”

It’s no secret the pandemic drastically upended the American workforce. After millions of workers lost their jobs and were sent home, they began to appreciate the value of downtime and a stress-free lifestyle. So much so that many of those newly-unemployed were reluctant to return to the nine-to-five grind.

Businesses, anxious to be up and running again, have been desperate to get warm bodies back on their payrolls and in the office. Many CEOs have come to realize that degree-inflation — requiring an often-unnecessary bachelor’s degree for entry- and mid-level positions — has been a barrier to bringing on good, hard-working men and women.

These types of jobs can include well-paying positions such as regional managers, supervisors, support specialists, administrative workers, and countless others. While a kid right out of high school may not have the skills necessary for many of these jobs, someone who has worked in the field for five or 10 years or more usually has picked up the qualifications necessary to do the work well.

Last week, Gov. Glenn Youngkin joined six other state governors in a trend that began last year when he announced that the Old Dominion will no longer require college degrees for nearly 90 percent of state government jobs. It will also no longer give higher preference to degree holders. Every year, Virginia state agencies advertise more than 20,000 job openings.

In a press release, Youngkin said:

On day one we went to work reimagining workforce solutions in government and this key reform will expand opportunities for qualified applicants who are ready to serve Virginians. This landmark change in hiring practices for our state workforce will improve hiring processes, expand possibilities and career paths for job seekers and enhance our ability to deliver quality services.

And in a follow-on statement, Secretary of Labor Bryan Slater added:

We have opened a sea of opportunity at all levels of employment for industrious individuals who have the experience, training, knowledge, skills, abilities, and most importantly, the desire to serve the people of Virginia.

This is a very good move. Eliminating the degree requirement allows employers to focus on an applicant’s skill level and other competencies. Degree-requirements often automatically eliminate many promising and talented candidates who couldn’t afford college or for some other reason chose to go straight into the workforce from high school. Many of those who don’t have degrees are minorities — and this opens up thousands of well-paying positions to talented workers from all walks of life. Also, consider that a non-degree-holding, skilled applicant may have a far better work ethic than a newly-graduated college student. Let’s hope the trend continues and spreads to the private workforce.

Of course, not everyone is happy with this Youngkin decision. Colleges and universities must be concerned about the potential loss of students once people realize they don’t need to go into debt for thousands of dollars simply to land a mid-level career.

Following the governor’s announcement, City University of New York professor and journalist Jeff Jarvis tweeted, “They hate education because the educated know better than to vote for them.”

Really? If there were an award for the most churlish tweet of the year, Jarvis would be in the running. Snarky comments aside, most people believe that this is a commonsense move, including President Barack Obama, who in March said the movement was a “smart policy that gets rid of unnecessary college degree requirements and reduces barriers to good paying jobs. I hope other states follow suit!”

It will be interesting to watch what happens as the new policies take effect in Virginia, Maryland, Alaska, Utah, and Pennsylvania.