Degrees and ‘Populist Virtue Signaling’

Tracking the debate over degree requirements and skills-based hiring.

A backlash may be emerging to recent moves by states and companies to drop job requirements for four-year college degrees and to move toward skills-based hiring.

“A look at the data suggests the skills-based hiring movement may actually amount to little more than populist virtue signaling,” Ben Wildavsky, an author and visiting scholar at the University of Virginia, wrote this week in an essay published by The New York Times.

That argument expands on a piece Wildavsky wrote last year for Work Shift, where he dumped cold water on chatter about Big Tech and other companies abandoning traditional credentials.

In addition to doing little to expand economic opportunity, Wildavsky wrote this week, the campaign “sends a degree-skeptical message that risks hurting rather than helping those who most would benefit … from pursuing an education beyond high school.” (Princeton University Press will publish Wildavsky’s forthcoming book, The Career Arts: Making the Most of College, Credentials, and Connections.)

I haven’t seen any responses to the op-ed. But here are some of the key facts that underpin this debate:

Who Benefits: The bachelor’s degree clearly pays off for the typical graduate—with an average earnings premium of $30K that more than offsets the costs of a degree—though the average hides a lot of variance. A quarter of bachelor’s degree holders earn no more than the typical high school graduate, and those unlucky graduates are much more likely to have grown up poor.

The question of whom a bachelor’s pays off for, at which colleges, and in what programs is so complex that it’s a large and growing field of research. No simple answers there.

Who Loses Out: Most Americans don’t hold four-year degrees.

  • Roughly 38% of adults hold a bachelor’s or higher, and those percentages drop to 28% for Black adults and 21% for Latinos.
  • The typical four-year degree holder was raised in the middle class or higher. Only 15% of young adults who were raised in low-income families have earned a bachelor’s degree by age 25, compared to 59% of those from top-earning families.
  • The gap is the result of the compounding effect of both lower college-going and lower completion rates. More than 40M adults started college but never earned a credential.

Ditching the Bachelor’s: There’s a risk that the skills-based hiring movement could encourage more people to forgo a four-year degree under the mistaken belief that it’s no longer important in the labor market. But evidence that’s happening is scant.

Instead, a key driver of skepticism about four-year degrees is the national uproar about rising student debt and the cost of college. For example, a recent survey by Public Agenda found that the vast majority of Americans still think a college education gives you a leg up in your career. But they also think colleges are cost prohibitive for low-income students. And there’s a growing sense that the U.S. economic system is rigged—including college.

Many lower-income students opt for community college or other shorter-term options because of perceived costs, but also time and proximity.

Research from Johns Hopkins University, for example, has shown that youths in high-poverty communities understand the value of a bachelor’s in today’s labor market—if anything, they overestimate it—but they opt for shorter-term programs because they don’t believe they’ll be able to stay in school for four years.

And statistically, they’re right. The road to a degree is much harder for poor students for a host of nonacademic reasons.

Which Version of Both/And? An advertising campaign from Opportunity@Work and the Ad Council advocates for dropping four-year degree requirements in hiring. It’s aimed at HR managers and seeks to remove an “invisible barrier” for 70M Americans without bachelor’s degrees who have gained skills elsewhere, including those who graduated from community college.

Wildavsky worries about people “giving up on degrees altogether,” and praises a “both/and” approach to getting ahead that involves layering microcredentials and other skills development on top of degrees. Opportunity@Work makes a different “both/and” argument that also sees the bachelor’s as important.

“If we want to rebuild economic mobility, we must see both college and ‘alternative routes’ as viable ways to build a thriving labor force and a path to the middle class,” Kate Naranjo, a then director at the group, wrote last year for Work Shift.

Two things can be true at the same time, as Bryce McKibben, senior director of policy and advocacy for the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, wrote this week on the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. More jobs should be open to workers without degrees, he says, because not everyone can get one. And higher ed can be life changing, so we can’t give up on making it affordable and accessible.

I’ve seen few, if any, serious proposals to quit trying to improve college access and completion. However, I have heard from K-12 educators and policymakers that a reboot of four-year college for all isn’t the answer to closing America’s yawning wealth and income gaps.

The Kicker: “We already know college alone cannot fix declining economic mobility because it does not pay off equally for all workers,” Naranjo wrote.

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