In today’s economy, along with the high cost of college and changing social attitudes about a degree’s value in some fields, employers are increasingly questioning the need to require job applicants to hold a traditional four-year degree.
In the public sector, some states have removed unnecessary degree requirements that block otherwise qualified applicants from getting a state job. Other states are commissioning research to analyze which jobs should no longer require a four-year degree and whether the requirement was ever appropriate for some positions.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R-Maryland) started this movement in 2022. He was soon joined by Gov. Jared Polis (D-Colorado), and other governors have come on board since.
In January 2023, Gov. Josh Shapiro (D-Pennsylvania) was one of them. He signed an executive order on his first full day in office to end the four-year degree requirement in most state jobs. According to the governor’s office, more than 90% of all the government jobs in Pennsylvania, or about 65,000 positions, have been made available to applicants regardless of college status.
This reform effort is bipartisan, with elected officials of both parties moving to put a higher value on demonstrated skills and experience than a four-year college credential. Former President Barack Obama endorsed the idea, saying in a Tweet:
“Here’s an example of a smart policy that gets rid of unnecessary college degree requirements and reduces barriers to good paying jobs. I hope other states follow suit!”
Rethinking a college-degree requirement has been happening in the private sector, too. The nation appears ready to promote practices and government policies that help millions of Americans who didn’t go after college degrees, or who spent thousands on tuition but didn’t graduate, to be eligible for a wider range of jobs.
Companies like Apple, Tesla, IBM, Delta Airlines and Hilton no longer require a college degree when granting a job interview, according to the Harvard Business Review. A recent study of the economy found that the percentage of private-sector jobs requiring a traditional college degree fell from 51% in 2017 to 44% in 2021. A Gallup poll found that the share of young adults who say a college education is “very important” has dropped from 74% to 41% in recent years.
Washington state lawmakers should ensure that the government is acknowledging the many different routes to successful work, including on-the-job training and advancement, apprenticeships, internships, vocational training and college education. Maintaining unnecessary barriers to employment hurts workers and the state.
Thankfully, many government agency positions already only require a two-year associate degree rather than a traditional four-year college degree. State leaders should build on this positive trend and drop arbitrary college qualifications that screen out many potential applicants. This reform would reduce the level of college debt and help more qualified workers find employment. It would help the state fulfill its service role to taxpayers while attracting the best talent available.
State hiring should be based on the skills and abilities needed for the position, without automatically excluding those who don’t hold a college degree. As the Harvard Business School put it, “Jobs do not require four-year degrees. Employers do.”
Elizabeth Hovde is a policy analyst and the director of the Centers for Health Care and Worker Rights at the Washington Policy Center. She is a Clark County resident.