When firms drop college-degree requirements, does hiring change? A new study gives stark answers.

April 23, 2024

Since the height of the pandemic, many employers have committed to dropping college-degree requirements for jobs and to pivot toward skills-based hiring, which is believed to expand hiring pools and to help achieve DEI goals. Even before the pandemic firms like Ernst & Young had decided a four year degree wasn’t essential. 

But have public commitments to skills-based hiring translated into changes in practice? Are companies now hiring a greater share of their workforce among people who have skills employers need but who simply do not have a college degree?

These questions motivated a recent study conducted by researchers with The Burning Glass Institute and Harvard Business School. Researchers analyzed job postings along with actual hiring data to see whether non-degreed workers were being hired at higher rates than before the recent wave of public commitments to skills-based hiring.

An analysis of job postings revealed that, between 2014 and 2023, the annual number of roles for which degree requirements were dropped nearly quadrupled. But despite progress in job postings, researchers found there was nearly negligible impact on the reality of hiring.

“For all its fanfare, the increased opportunity promised by Skills-Based Hiring was borne out in not even 1 in 700 hires last year,” concludes the report, authored by Matt Sigelman, Joseph Fuller, and Alex Martin.

Moreover, the small increase in skills-based hiring was achieved by a small set of employers, just 37 percent of firms in the study. The biggest group of firms (45% of all firms) pivoted toward skills-based hiring “in name only.” These firms changed job postings but not hiring behavior. And ten percent of firms were “backsliders”: they changed job postings, initially increased skills-based hiring, but ended up hiring even fewer people who do not hold a B.A.

The study provides strong evidence that real change toward skills-based hiring requires more than revised job postings, a finding that may strike many observers as disappointing, if unsurprising, after years of calls to tear the paper ceiling.

Still, some companies were what the researchers called “skills-based hiring leaders,” firms which on average hired 18 percent more non-degreed employees after dropping degree requirements. The study does not reveal why these companies succeeded where others failed, but it does show that small and big companies alike were leaders. Among those leaders were major global employers, including Walmart, Apple, and ExxonMobil.

The study also identified roles for which skills-based hiring seems especially suitable. These are roles that already have clear pathways to good careers without a college degree, such as careers where alternate credentialing is used, or where skills can be learned on the job.

According to Burning Glass, the top five jobs to which skills-based hiring could be successfully applied in the very near future are construction managers, web developers, distribution managers, production and planning clerks, and computer programmers. 

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