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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Down with the college-industrial complex

Young people believe they need a college degree to be considered for a "good job," writes Rick Hess, education policy director of the American Enterprise Institute. Without that piece of paper, they've been told, employers won't consider their knowledge, skills or experience.

As part of a bipartisan push to open opportunities to more people, Pennsylvania's new Democratic governor, Josh Shapiro, announced that 92 percent of state government jobs will no longer require a four-year college degree, Hess notes. Applicants will be hired based on skills, relevant experience and merit. Shapiro’s move follows similar actions by Republican governors, such as Larry Hogan in Maryland and Spencer Cox in Utah.

Over the years, employers are increasingly demanding a four-year degree for jobs that never required one in the past, writes Hess. Degree inflation is inefficient: A Harvard Business School study "found that college graduates filling middle-skill positions cost more to employ, have higher turnover rates, tend to be less engaged, and are no more productive than high-school graduates doing the same job."

Federal anti-discrimination law bans employment tests that have a "disparate impact" on minorities, writes Hess. But "disparate impact" hasn't been applied to college degrees, even though they have "baked racial and socioeconomic disparities into the candidate pool for professional jobs."

Under the status quo, the big losers are recent high school grads and the two-thirds of U.S. adults without a four-year degree. Requiring a college degree disqualifies many workers with relevant skills and experience out of rewarding work, bars young people from opportunities that will help them climb the professional ladder, and forces individuals to rack up college debt pursuing paper credentials they may not want or actually need.

Serving as the gateway to a good job has been been lucrative for colleges, he writes.

Degree inflation is receding, editorializes the New York Times, which notes that the private sector has been moving toward skill-based hiring. Half of job openings at IBM "no longer require a four-year degree."

The "paper ceiling" is blocking upward mobility for half the workforce, argues the nonprofit Opportunity@Work. Those who "gained their skills through alternative routes such as apprenticeships, military service, trade schools, certificate programs and on-the-job training rather than acquiring bachelor’s degrees" represent "a deep pool of underutilized and undercompensated talent," writes the Times.

College enrollment, which fell sharply during the pandemic, declined this fall, but only slightly, according to a new report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The most popular majors are business and marketing, health professions, liberal arts and sciences, biological sciences and engineering.

If more young people believe they can compete for decent jobs without paying for a four-year degree, expect enrollment to continue to fall -- and tuition as well.

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