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Should a College Degree Always Be a Requirement When Hiring?

In Hiring Strategy — by Dave Anderson


I once worked with an amazing manager who didn’t have a college degree. She led marketing and business development for the small startup we worked for. She was also a web designer and developer and built the company website.

After working with her for about a year and half, she told me her story over coffee one day. It turns out she was once a professional skier and focused on training for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team after high school. When she didn’t make the team, she started to teach herself web design. That was in the late 90’s. The first tech boom took off a few years later and she went on to have a successful career working for some impressive technology companies.

She was so talented and experienced that I always assumed she had gone to college. And until that point, I always thought a college degree was an absolute must for most professional jobs.

The value of a college degree to employers

Education requirements are a standard part of any job description. And a bachelor’s or an advanced degree is often a hard and fast requirement in the business world.

At first glance, requiring a degree makes perfect sense. Exceptional young people go to college to learn skills that make them valuable to employers. Our society also views a diploma as a sign of intelligence, work ethic and responsibility.

But these days, there is a lot of talk of college degrees being less valuable than they once were. Only 16 percent of American college graduates believe their education prepared them for a well-paying job, according to PewResearchCenter. The world is changing so fast that the curriculum taught in many universities isn’t applicable for some modern careers. The case can be made that companies should rethink their degree requirements when hiring for certain roles.

When a college degree isn’t a must

Relevant skills and experience are primarily what you look for when hiring. You want to make sure anyone who joins your team knows their job and it’s easy to assume a college graduate learned their craft in school.

However, there are now alternatives to traditional universities and, in some cases, they better prepare people for specialized careers. A person can learn to code through intensive bootcamps, online schools and free courseware and may end up more qualified than someone with a computer science degree. In the case of digital marketing, a business diploma doesn’t mean much. Smart employers seek candidates with relevant certifications and who keep up with the latest trends in the space. The takeaway is it can be a good idea to look past what a candidate majored in and focus more on their supplemental education especially for roles that are continuously evolving.

Exceptional people don’t always go to college

Another time you can look past education requirements is when you come across a particularly awesome candidate. I imagine my former colleague’s background impressed her employers as much as it did me. As an ex-athlete, they likely saw focus and determination in her. Not someone who was lazy or ambivalent after high school.

Skills and experience take a back seat to personality when hiring for some roles. Sometimes you need to find a specific type of person and that can mean considering candidates with non-traditional backgrounds.

That doesn’t mean you should completely scrap the need for a degree. You can instead relax your requirements and accept candidates who took on different challenges, like serving in the military, joining the Peace Corps or starting their own company, to name a few examples.

When a college degree is a must

The theme of this blog post is there are some roles you can consider non-college graduates for. A candidate who completed a coding bootcamp can make a great developer and an ex-entrepreneur can be a solid addition to your leadership team.

But there are some professions that are the same as they’ve always been and learning the ins and outs in college is the best way to become qualified for a job. No one would ever want an accountant or nurse who hasn’t been properly trained.

Be open minded yet logical when hiring. If you’re open role requires specific skills and experience a candidate would learn in college, then requiring a degree makes perfect sense. But if you value traits a person could acquire through other life experiences, why not forgo education requirements so you can attract other exceptional candidates?

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