Reporting on the connections between education and work

No, Google isn’t making college degrees obsolete

Contrary to the popular disruption story, companies like Google have not abandoned traditional credentials, writes Ben Wildavsky, a visiting scholar at the University of Virginia. And we need to tell young people about the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.
Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., in 2016. (Uladzik Kryhin/Shutterstock)

You’ve likely heard something about big tech giants like Google and Microsoft getting rid of degree requirements for new hires. To much fanfare in the press, these giant employers announced over the past few years that they’d evaluate skills and promise, rather than require traditional credentials, when seeking new employees.

It was all part of a new world of work, premised on rethinking what it takes to get hired and heralded by forward-looking thinkers as demonstrating the rise of new pathways into good jobs.

But guess what? A study released today from the nonprofit Burning Glass Institute found that among new hires at leading firms such as Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, and Google, the share of positions in job postings requiring a bachelor’s degree remains extremely high. “There are a whole bunch of tech companies that continue to be pretty reliant on degrees,” Matt Sigelman, Institute president and Emsi Burning Glass chairman, told me.

  • Despite some decline since 2017, last year nearly eight in 10 information technology postings at Google and more than seven in 10 at Apple specified a bachelor’s or above. At Intel, the share of IT postings with a degree requirement actually rose from 87 to 96 percent.

To be sure, the new report, “The Emerging Degree Reset,” takes pains to highlight considerable evidence that employers across industries, including in tech jobs at firms like IBM and Accenture, have loosened degree requirements for some high-skill jobs and even more middle skill ones amid the pandemic. That includes occupations like customer service manager, paralegal, and billing clerk.

And it argues that the change started before Covid-19 and is likely to continue. Because the report looks at job postings and not actual hiring decisions, it’s possible degree holders are still favored. But Sigelman believes the lower requirements are “at least a decent proxy” for hiring behavior. “It’s something they’re re-evaluating.”

The report also notes that it “eliminated from the analysis” occupations in which more than 90 percent of postings required a bachelor’s or more. Why? Because such jobs “are highly unlikely to ever drop the degree requirement.” Sigelman says the researchers wanted to account for fields like law, medicine, or chemical engineering in which continued degree requirements are uncontroversial. That exclusion left out 11.73 million, or 23 percent, of the 51 million total job postings.

In general, it seems reports of the demise of the bachelor’s degree have gotten ahead of the facts on the ground.

Contrary to the popular disruption story, companies like Google have not abandoned traditional credentials. Quite the opposite, says Sean Gallagher, founder of Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy, “they love college degrees.”

There’s definitely more interest in skills-based hiring, particularly in today’s tight labor market. But that interest is somewhat deceptive. A lot of the growth and momentum in short-term credentials comes from people who already have degrees and are seeking additional targeted qualifications, Gallagher notes. In other words, the reality of the job market is much more complicated than the degree-is-dead narrative.

This disconnect matters both for practical and philosophical reasons. On the practical front, young people facing decisions about education need to know about the world as it is—not just the world hoped for by advocates of skills-based hiring. And despite some recent changes in occupational requirements, today’s world still rewards degrees substantially.

For all the chatter about college degrees being overrated, there remains a massive base of economic evidence for their value, not just for getting hired in the first place, but also for navigating what for many people are likely to be a series of job changes throughout a long career.

That brings us to the philosophy of degrees. It’s not that they’re perfect for everyone in all cases. We all know that the positive economic data—including an annual earning premium of more than $30,000 compared to high school graduates—are about average salaries for degree-holders. What undergraduates study matters a lot for marketability, too. And far too many people start college, don’t finish, and end up saddled with debt but no degree.

But those who actually acquire a college degree, including in liberal arts fields that take longer to pay off than STEM majors, frequently gain just the mix of broad skills and targeted skills required for career success. These skills include reading, writing, and analyzing in general ed classes followed by tailored instruction in fields like accounting, nursing, or computer science—or more academic study in the sciences or humanities before law school, medical school, or another graduate program.

This is why four-year degrees, exceptions notwithstanding, remain the gold standard of educational credentials.

So does this mean degree alternatives are a lost cause? Not at all. Many Americans are looking for faster and cheaper ways to boost their skills and improve their employment prospects. If they choose intelligently—such as in-demand health specialties, or data science, for instance—that strategy can work. As Chauncy Lennon of Lumina Foundation notes, half of employed adults with short-term certificates earn $30,000 or less per year, but those who earn STEM certificates have higher average earnings than holders of associate degrees in education. 

What’s more, many employers—Amazon and Walmart among them—will pay for short-term as well as traditional credentials, because they correctly view education as a useful employee-retention benefit in a tight labor market. When those short credentials can be stacked together into degrees with a track record of improving earnings over the long term, so much the better.

The challenge is for advocates of new pathways to the workforce not to depict degrees and degree alternatives as an either/or choice. That’s a recipe for pushing people away from the credentials that are still, in the vast majority of cases, needed to land a job at Google or many other employers.

Ideally, non-degree pathways, in tech firms and beyond, would be part of the mix—but we should be calling for a both/and approach, not sounding a premature death knell for the degree.

Ben Wildavsky, author of The Great Brain Race, is a visiting scholar at the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development. He is working on a book for Princeton University Press on the optimal combination of broad education, targeted skills, and social capital needed for career success.

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