Is this the beginning of the end for the higher education monopoly?
Earlier this month, the job-search site Glassdoor compiled a list of 15 major companies that no longer require applicants for certain posts to have a college degree. The list included an array of entry- and mid-level jobs —everything from barista to “Apple Genius” to “senior manager of finance” — at such corporate giants as Apple, Google, Bank of America, Penguin Random House, Home Depot, Costco, Whole Foods, and Starbucks. Glassdoor lauded these firms for opening new pathways to success and recognizing “that book smarts don’t necessarily equal strong work ethic, grit and talent.” CNBC and Axios provided similar, approving coverage.
This is a praiseworthy development, to be sure. But it should also raise an obvious question: Why were firms requiring college degrees for such jobs in the first place? Is there good reason to believe that having a B.A. in sociology or women’s studies makes one more qualified to be a stocker at Costco or shift supervisor at Starbucks?
No, there isn’t.
In fact, there’s clear evidence that over-credentialing is bad for workers and for businesses. A comprehensive 2017 study by researchers at Harvard Business School found that college graduates filling middle-skill positions cost more to employ, have higher turnover rates, tend to be less engaged, and are no more productive than high-school graduates doing the same job. The long-term consequences of degree inflation look to be even worse, as employers continue to pay a premium for a college-educated workforce even when filling positions that non-credentialed workers could just as easily do, leading ever more students to incur the costs of pursuing a degree.
The U.S. currently has $1.48 trillion in total outstanding U.S. student loan debt divided amongst 44.2 million Americans, and that’s not the only negative consequence of over-credentialing.