Does Your New Hire Really Need a Degree?

In the workplace, degree inflation has been on the rise for decades. College graduates are occupying roles that once required only a high school education. Positions that once called for a Bachelor’s Degree now call for a Masters.

It makes sense. A record number of Americans ages 25 to 29–more than one third–hold at least a bachelor’s degree. In 1975, that number was a mere 24.7 percent. About eight percent of Americans today have a master’s degree. That’s a 43 percent increase since 2002, and the same percentage as those that held a bachelor’s degree in the 1960s.

With a more educated population, degrees seem like an obvious filter. You have to whittle down the candidate pool somehow, right? But the obvious solution isn’t always the best solution.

Higher education serves a valuable purpose, and it’s not going anywhere. But when you’re writing the requirements for your next job opening, consider this: Is a higher ed degree really necessary? And if you conclude that a degree isn’t required, what should you look for instead?

Lifelong learning

Many small businesses simply can’t afford to recruit and hire employees with top-notch educations the same way big firms can. That’s the situation Greg Archibald, Founder and CEO of oil and gas startup GreaseBook, finds himself in: He isn’t in a position financially to be able to hire any of his MBA classmates. And he doesn’t feel his business is suffering for it, either.

“Limiting your sourcing to people who have all of the ‘educational requirements’ is really a hunt for average performers,” he says. “Understand, I’m comfortable saying this because I possess a postgraduate degree [from ESADE, one of the world’s top international business schools] and have worked with both ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ when it comes to educational credentials.”

Instead of education, Archibald seeks to identify candidates who demonstrate a desire and commitment to lifelong learning. They may not immediately possess all the skills you’re looking for, but they’ll be able to grow on the job.

“They’re willing to learn what you have spent so much time and energy discovering,” he says. “It’s someone who is open to the possibility of learning skills she hasn’t developed yet, skills she wants to learn.”

Lifelong learning can take time and effort to suss out, as sometimes the trait won’t immediately be evident on a resume or during an interview. It requires a deep dive into a candidate’s work history and track record. Once you’ve found a lifelong learner, though, be prepared to make an offer.

“On the job, learners are motivated,” Archibald says. “And motivation shows up as passion, desire, self-motivation, commitment, work ethic and persistence. It’s the universal trait of success. Look for it in every potential hire.”

Experience over education

A lack of education isn’t synonymous with a lack of knowledge. Sometimes a candidate without a college degree will bring all the know-how they need to a new position thanks to on-the-job experience.

Mayer Dahan, CEO of Prime Five Homes, pulled a Mark Zuckerberg and dropped out of college halfway through his degree once he came to the realization that his success wouldn’t hinge on a diploma. He became a real estate agent before moving on to the building side of the business. Today, his real estate development firm is among the fastest growing private companies in Los Angeles.

As he spent more time running his business and hiring employees, he realized that experience trumped education. “Many of the applicants had technical skills and a good eye for design, and a four-year degree wasn’t necessary,” he says. “It’s more important to hire a candidate who has an understanding of the business than a degree.”

Chargebacks911, a risk management and chargeback management firm, has a mix of degreed and non-degreed employees on staff. “Having a degree will speak to a candidate’s discipline, follow-through, and skill level without requiring a lot of additional questions to uncover these traits,” says Human Resources Director Amy Rarick. On the other hand, requiring a degree can result in overlooking talent.

“We may look more closely at non-degreed candidate’s experience and test their knowledge, but they will still have our consideration,” she says. “Several of our current employees do not have degrees and are very successful within the organization. Their success has led to our decision to be more flexible on the subject of education.”

Distinguish between requirements and qualifications

The objective of any job is to solve a problem – to serve customers, to bring in revenue, to improve a product, etc. Based on the problem, you can define a set of job activities. And once you’ve defined the activities, you’ll be able to determine the job’s requirements.

Requirements can take two forms: skills and characteristics. Skills are knowledge-based proficiencies that can be learned, like writing and programming. Characteristics are more innate, personality-based qualities, like empathy and geniality. Consider, for example, how successful a salesperson would be without the characteristic of persistence.

Requirements are different from qualifications. Qualifications are the parts of the job description that call for ‘x years of experience’ or ‘degree in y.’ Ultimately, qualifications tell you very little about whether a candidate can competently perform a job. I’ve known of employers who were blown away by senior-level software engineers only to find out they can’t actually code.

An evolving path to work

When the average job opening attracts 118 applicants, you need a way to quickly narrow the field. Contrary as it sounds, though, degrees may not be the way to do it. This degree inflation brings with it a certain watering down of education’s value. And with educational costs rising astronomically, there’s been a movement in recent years to shake up the system.

A number of organizations are offering brief, intensive courses in fields like programming with the promise of well-paying job prospects at the end. For $10,000, a high school grad can enroll in a 10-week course and walk away with a $75,000 job at the end. Compare that with a liberal arts grad who spends four years and $150,000 on their education and struggles to find a $40,000 position.

Still questioning the wisdom of hiring someone without a degree for a job that traditionally requires one? Rarick has this question for doubters: “Would you want to overlook an exceptional candidate, degreed or not, if they had the knowledge, skills and experience to make a positive contribution to the organization?”