Employers Overvalue College Degrees and Here’s Why

In recent decades, we’ve seen a steady increase in the number of jobs that require candidates to have bachelor’s degrees. Even job titles that once only required vocational training or an associate degree—like Construction Site Manager or Dental Hygienist—now routinely list a 4-year degree as one of their mandatory prerequisites. There are a number of reasons to explain why this marketplace shift has occurred, but is it warranted? Here, we take a closer look.

Explaining the Shift

When asked why they’ve begun requiring candidates to have bachelor’s degrees, employers will offer up a range of answers. Some say candidates who have attended college are more serious, professional, and career-oriented individuals. Others might say college grads are more mature and possess the problem-solving capabilities it takes to succeed in a work environment. Some employers might cite the fact that technology has permeated and disrupted the status quo in a range of industries, rendering all jobs more technical and complex. Still others will admit that limiting their candidate pool to just degree-holders makes it simpler weed people out.

What’s clear is that while many employers have reasons for giving precedence to college graduates, those reasons are largely nebulous and not always logical. In fact, we believe that by limiting their search for the right hires to just post-grads, many employers are actually hurting their businesses.

Bad For Everyone

It’s easy to understand why this increased emphasis on college education is bad for job seekers: people who once had a wide range of career prospects are now limited to a much more narrow scope of options. What’s more surprising, is that this shifted emphasis actually hurts employers too. There are several reasons why.

  • It creates a mismatch between the number of jobs available versus the number of workers who meet the stated requirements. In some industries this gap is substantial enough that the slim supply of workers is much less than the high demand for jobs, creating a workers shortage where one need not exist.
  • Next, employers who favor green college grads over someone with years of relevant experience and a fine-tuned set of skills are missing out on hiring people who could bring both value and insight to their company. That’s not to say recent college graduates would underperform, but the correlation between a degree and performing well on the job is certainly not a given.     
  • Finally, when employers fill their jobs with overqualified college grads, the odds are that those new hires will be keen to move onto different career opportunities quickly. The resulting high turnover rate will only cost these employers valuable time, resources, and money.

The Bigger Picture

All practical reasons aside, there’s a moral question at play here as well. This new emphasis on education means that millions of people are closed off from certain industries, jobs, and in turn, opportunities for career and salary advancement. This will only hinder and hurt the forward advancement of our labor market as a whole.

Instead of keeping the spotlight on college, we’re advocating for the expansion of vocational, 2-year, and certificate programs and on-the-job training. And we’re asking that employers everywhere be more mindful of their job requirements, and whether or not a degree really is required for every position.

Our goal is to ensure that the most career opportunities are available to as many people as possible. We want to see all job seekers find a job in an industry they enjoy, that makes them feel fulfilled, financially secure, and empowered to advance.

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Written by

ZipRecruiter's former Chief Economist, Cathy Barrera is the founding economist of Prysm Group, a leading blockchain economics and governance design firm.

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