College Degree or No College Degree…That is the Question

college degree for job requirements
College degree and graduation cap for job requirements

Organizations continue to be challenged by a talent shortage, searching for strategies that will open the talent pipeline for candidates in the tech realm that conform to their most important requirements, often with education near the top of the list. According to BLS projections, there are 169 job occupations that will require a 4-year college degree as a minimum requirement, including Software Developers and Specialists. Other tech-based positions, like Computer user specialists are still listed as potentially needing some college. Yet a Stack Overflow survey a few years ago showed that 56% of developers do not hold a formal degree.

If companies hold fast to the education requirement, will they miss out on talent? Today, there is ample evidence that some organizations may be softening these guidelines as they start to consider qualifications other than formal education. This gradual change in requirements may also reflect what we are seeing on a larger scale in terms of college enrollment as well.

The College Degree Trajectory

In the fall of 2010, the total enrollment in 4-year higher education institutions peaked at 21,019,438 in the US. Today, that enrollment has decreased nearly 10% to 19,744,000.  The pandemic did not change that trajectory, with over 1 million in reduced enrollments to date. Of course, some experts were hopeful that perhaps students were “pausing” enrollment, waiting out the tumultuous last year or two. But it turns out re-enrollment increased by only 2%, still contributing to a downward trend.

Since the winter of 2020, it’s easiest to attribute shifts in trends to “pre” and “post pandemic” brackets. Yet, the affinity for, or against, the necessity of a college degree has been debated as enrollment has declined for over 2 decades, citing pros and cons for getting a college education based on industry, socio-economic, region, and a host of other factors.

Most recently, for the younger working generation just starting out, the demand for talent and the increased wages for jobs not requiring a college degree was tempting. But some forecasts suggest that the concept of working now for a paycheck in lieu of securing a degree for later could cause a perpetual deficit in the future and limit potential for higher earnings and more opportunities.

Why? Well, the “Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that American workers with a bachelor’s degree make $1,248 per week on average while workers with just a high school degree earn closer to $746 per week on average.”

It’s been a long-held position. Study after study suggest that a college degree enhances hiring chances, opens up more options and has the potential for higher earnings in the future. And there are certain professions where schooling is a necessity. After all, it is nearly a universal expectation that our lawyers and doctors acquire a wealth of schooling to be the experts in their fields. That also holds true for complex positions in engineering and a host of other disciplines.

But what about tech talent and the requirement of a college degree?

That’s where the mindset might be shifting. No degree might be “no problem” for some companies.

Consider tech giants like IBM, Google, Amazon, Salesforce, and now Tesla. They’ve long realized that the talent pipelines need to be wide-open – to meet the significant demand for technologists, but also to open pathways to a diverse workforce that may have been hindered by bias, unconscious or conscious, that comes with the university watermark on a resume.

With the availability of self-paced training and community tech forums, coupled with the fact that technology advances so quickly, making it hard for educational institutions to be in sync with these real-time advancements, we are also encountering a generation of new professionals that are self-taught and highly fluent in tech disciplines, but might not have the “official” degree touting their expertise.

In some instances, it may also only be the degree that can stand in the way of earning more. A McKinsey report said that “as many as 30 million U.S. workers without college diplomas have the skills necessary to earn 70% more. Often, the report claims, employer education requirements hold these workers back.”

For whatever reason for not to pursue a college degree, whether it be money constraints, family constraints, personal reasons, etc., a skilled professional who can do the job outright, might be held back because of an education requirement. That’s not to diminish the importance of a quality education – college helps refine skills, expand knowledge, introduce students to new ways of thinking and requires a diligence and discipline to reach the goal of a successful graduation. However, in some instances, on the job learning and real-world work experience can also accomplish many of those same things.

Will a shift in degree requirements be the future of work? That remains to be seen.

To account for the differences in experience (not to mention the importance placed on soft skills, which are crucial to hiring the right talent), companies are starting to create an avenue of “experience outweighing education.” Still, the quest for college degrees is still a preferred path for many professionals, both in tech and otherwise. For perspective in 2020:

There were 237, 463 Degrees awarded for Computer and Information Sciences and Support Services (includes 2-yr, 4-yr at Public and Private Institutions). Broken down further, there were:

  • Over 3,800 Computer Software engineering degrees awarded in 2020
  • More than 16,000 Computer Engineering degrees awarded in 2020
  • Approximately 1595 Human Computer Interaction degrees awarded in 2020

…and the list goes on.

Finding the right skillset combination for the tech jobs of the future is the top priority.

While the requirement for college degrees is still in the majority of job postings, there are still great jobs ripe for the taking by skilled individuals who may have taken a different route. At SSi People, we work with proven tech professionals who are top of the field, but more importantly possess the recommended combination of business, people and tech skills that make them the perfect match for our clients looking to build their best workforce.

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