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Bruce Bialosky

Colleges are Losing Their Chokehold on America

There is a fable that has been created in our society over the last 50 years. That fable is you will not succeed in America unless you have a college degree. It is so much so that students (and their families) have driven themselves into $1.4 trillion of debt. The Democrats want to make college free (Yes – “free”) while we (the nation) absorb the existing debt.
Fortunately, many major employers, in part driven by the pandemic, have realized that not all their employees need degrees. In fact, it is harming their employment goals.

Not only have larger employers used a college degree as a distinguishing aspect in their hiring practices, but so have many medium and smaller sized employers. One of the reasons it is a demarcation on a resume is because it can be. In today’s legalistic world of hiring, employers can maintain employees’ college degrees as a characteristic to stratify employees. Mindlessly or not.

Research for this column noted that many employers felt a college degree confirms a higher level of verbal and writing skills. That is fascinating because most employers I know think the current college graduates (except for possibly ones with advance degrees) have terrible language skills. They write horribly and do not know how to address customers in a business setting. Then there is their complete lack of knowledge of the words please and thank you in dealing with customers.

Many of the Big Tech companies like Tesla and Apple have begun to eliminate college degrees from several of their positions including programmers. Elon Musk noted at a recent conference that many of the top people at tech companies such as Larry Ellison, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg never graduated from college. It would seem silly for these companies to then turn around and require programmers to have a college degree.

Requiring a college degree often runs contrary to actual experience for the positions. A 2014 survey found that 65% of employers were requiring college degrees for executive assistant and secretarial positions. At the time, 19% of people filling those positioning had degrees. Does that mean 81% of the people in those positions were performing inadequately or was it a knee-jerk reaction by employers to include college degrees as a requirement?

In a 2017 Harvard study, we found out the obvious. If you throw in a college degree requirement for middle-skill positions, the employees cost more. They not only found that people with college degrees have a higher turnover rate, but likewise tend to be less engaged and are no more productive than high-school graduates doing the same job. All these factors are major turnoffs to employers once they become aware of the facts.

In my research a lot of people analyzed the problem with too many college degree requirements and skipped over what seems to be an obvious cause. That cause is the advent of Human Resource (HR) departments. There are many good reasons to have HR departments in the complex world of employment and the related benefits. It seems obvious to me that the explosion of adding college degree requirements for jobs mirrors the explosion of HR personnel. Most executives stay away from hiring (except for key positions) to avoid charges of favoritism, nepotism and discrimination. Many executives were unaware of the over-credentialed requirements that resulted in 71 million high school graduates in the work force being precluded from filling positions despite being excellent candidates.

At a 2019 White House Conference, Siemens USA CEO Barbara Humpton identified the problem. She stated, “All too often, job requisitions will say they require a four-year degree, when in fact there’s nothing about the job that truly requires a four-year degree — it merely helped our hiring managers sort of weed through the crowd and get a smaller qualified candidate group.” Translation: the requirement is for the convenience of HR and not the company or potential employees.

To summarize, many employers have been inflating requirements for positions adding in college degrees where the requirements of the position do not warrant the degree. That has eliminated many qualified high school graduates who could capably fill the positions at potentially a lower cost and who would stay in the positions for a longer period reducing the costs of turnovers.

It is time for all employers to evaluate whether their open positions need a college degree. They should also evaluate whether a college degree is really needed for management positions, or whether people with hands-on practical experience may be better suited to fill those positions. It is time employers in America stop forcing young Americans to needlessly take on debt for a degree they neither want nor need.