Some states are removing the requirement for college degrees when posting most of their government positions. Do you have any thoughts on this and how it will affect recruiting, and how it might affect the commercial world if it adopted the same rule? For instance, if a recruiter can’t rely on a degree, what can they look at?

Nick’s Reply

college degreesI know you’re referring to the controversy in the labor market about whether job descriptions that specify a college degree actually require one to do the job. Is the degree really necessary? But let’s get underneath that: What can an employer — whether government or commercial — rely on to make a sound hiring judgment?

What do college degrees mean to recruiters?

What good does a candidate’s college degree do a recruiter if they don’t verify it? We’ve seen enough of this in the news — and by the time phony claims of degrees and fake resumes are exposed it’s always too late! The damage has been done to the individual’s reputation (and career and income), but also to the employer’s credibility. (Who wants to invest in, buy from, or work for a company that embarrasses itself like that?)

Removing a degree requirement will make little difference to a good recruiter who relies on more meaningful and reliable assessments of job candidates. On the other hand, it will drive inept recruiters nuts because now they actually have to do the hard work of qualifying applicants. Likewise, college-educated job seekers may find themselves having to demonstrate actual ability to do a job, rather than rest on their academic credentials.

Don’t get me wrong. I think college degrees are useful to a recruiter, but they are not sufficient for making judgments about candidates. The real message in the elimination of degree requirements is that employers need to do a much better job of assessing candidates directly, rather than relying on proxies like sheepskins, certifications, third-party reference checks, and indirect algorithm-driven evaluations. This goes for all kinds of jobs, not just government or “professional” ones.

So let’s answer your question.

If not college degrees, then what should recruiters look at?

Next to a demonstration of how they’d do the job, I think the single best indicator of a good candidate is their references. The best recruiters do their own reference checks. The lazy ones don’t do it all or outsource it — and I think this is a critical mistake. (See References: How employers bungle a competitive edge.) A third-party reference checker who’s just asking canned questions is not going to “read between the lines.” Even written references aren’t sufficient. You need that phone call and you’ve got to hear the voice.

I have always done reference checks myself on all my candidates – before I send them to a client employer. I want to know whether their resume and other claims they make are confirmed by people they’ve worked with. If the references conflict with any conclusions I might draw from the resume or the degree, it’s “no dice.” I’ve placed people with no degree who are stars – more expert than degreed people. And I’ve tossed out candidates with degrees when their references fail to support what their college degree implies.

What’s most interesting to me are candidates with no degrees and weak resumes. These poor people just don’t know how to portray themselves. But if their references SING! — that makes me take another look, and that’s made me lots of dough. Nothing makes me look better than finding a star everybody else has missed! But what about the recruiter who just skims the surface and misses a great candidate?

The Columbo Method

There’s something I ask at the end of every reference check that helps me test whatever I’ve already concluded. It’s an interrogation technique made famous in an old TV show, Columbo, starring Peter Falk as a disarmingly casual police detective. As I’m saying thanks and goodbye to the reference, I stop and ask, “Uh, just one more thing. If you could hire this person again today, would you?”

Like Columbo, I want to catch the reference off-guard. What I’m looking for is any hesitation before a YES. That is to say, even good references might not be enough! No automated reference check is going to give you that data point – nor will a degree.

Unfortunately, the elimination of degree requirements will likely make a bigger mess of inadequate recruiting practices. Maybe direct assessment of ability to do the job and talking with people who have first-hand experience working with the candidate will suddenly appear to be a really good idea. Which recruiters can do it?

Uh, just one more thing… College degrees, or…

Here’s an idea for a test I’d love to see. Line up 20 job candidates who have no college degree and 20 with degrees. Let employers interview all of them — for job postings that do and don’t specify a degree — without disclosing who does and does not have a degree. Who gets hired? How do the employers decide?

Have you ever gotten a good job that “required” a degree you didn’t have? If you have a degree, think you could win a job without relying on it? Ever hire someone without a degree for a “degreed” position? If you’re a recruiter, how much stock do you put in college degrees? What else do you rely on to assess a candidate?

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  1. Well this is a pretty scary thought. I found out after 5 years of working at my last job that my boss never checked my references. She said she just went on instinct. I worked there for ten years. Now the reason I find this scary is that I know my previous employer would give me a good reference but my other employers have all passed away. The companies have since been sold or closed completely. I do have one coworker I am in touch with and some clients that would give me good references. So my thought is if I have to job hunt again all I have is my degree, my experience and my knowledge. Although I do have dystonia and have retired early. I have not given up hope of working again someday if they find a cure or better ways to manage my condition. I do miss working more than I ever thought I would

  2. I have a Computer Engineering & Telecoms Masters degree but my view is that a degree only gives the idea (rather than certify) that I’m not completely stupid… All the rest is as you say Nick!

    • @Pedro: Yup! When I wear a Stanford t-shirt to the gym I’m sometimes asked, Did you really go to school there? I answer, Yes, I did, a long time ago — when I was smart.

      So the question is, how do we assess a person for a job today?

      • The value of a bachelor’s degree depreciates to almost zero 5 years after graduation.

  3. I think a degree requirement makes sense when the job requires critical thinking and strategic analysis. Personally I found degreed candidate requirement to be essential when hiring highly placed executives. My first career path out of college only happened because I graduated and completed an internship. The company had a college degree requirement for all Director level or above positions. We could not consider non-degreed candidates. What I found over time is the degreed candidate had the academic rigor to handle methods of critical thinking and analysis we needed to develop a competitive edge.

    Having said that, I was recruited into a senior position during a career transition where the hiring decision relied on recruiters reference checks to seal the deal. My reputation was verified and confirmed, The degree was a plus.

  4. I’m not sure it how much difference it actually makes, especially since apparently a lot of people actually do lie about it. I have actually deliberately left my degrees OFF my resume because I was pretty sure they were a hindrance at several points. (Like most Autistic people, I’ve been underemployed almost my entire working life.)

    As someone dealing with a disability that directly hampers acquiring appropriate employment, I do hope resume readers are still at least a teensy bit impressed with a degree from a reputable university, because I feel like that’s one more piece of evidence that I really can do the work they need (and then some!) if they’ll just leave me alone to do it, without requiring me to suffer through a bunch of pointless office politics first!

  5. It seems like many employers, before the pandemic, were requiring MBAs and Masters degrees for jobs that definitely did not need them. I was job hunting for a communications position and was turn away even though I had 20 yrs of experience in the profession and stellar references. Then I got a job where they hired an MBA to be my boss – she was a great person, but she knew nothing. She didn’t know how to manage people. She had to google standard terms and I had to teach her about digital marketing and communications. I basically was doing a lot of her job for her. I left that job for another where it was the same situation. The executive team waved their advanced degrees, but had no real-world experience before being put in charge of whole departments. This is especially bad in larger corporations. The degree is often a shortcut for bad HR.

    • Agree. It’s lazy and biased. I actually think that HR should be required to have non HR jobs prior to being allowed to work in HR. You learn so much a regular employee and it all translates to having a higher caliber HR team. You might enjoy the book “Disrupted” by Dan Lyons.

      • @LST: “HR should be required to have non HR jobs prior to being allowed to work in HR”

        Wish I’d thought of that.

  6. There’s been a lot of commnetary here in the DC area after a local college cut most of it’s humanities majors to concentrate on majors that draw more interest.
    (possible paywall)

    Humanities majors like history, English lit, atc. are valuable because they foster critical thinking and writing skills. My first job out of college hired a bunch of history majors like me because we could interpret material and write cogently. They trained us on the actual job knowledge.

    • @Dorrie: That kind of hiring strategy requires deeper and longer-term thinking than most managers are capable of. Hiring is handled like supply chain: “Just in time” is the strategy. Hire Skill A only when you need it, and when you need Skill B, get rid of the worker doing A and find one that does B. Rinse and repeat. Then “Employees are not loyal” goes the refrain.

      This is all aided and abetted by the “contracting” industry which enables easy hire and fire practicies.

  7. Reader Jim Vespe e-mailed me the following comment and asked me to post it.

    Three months after flunking out of Baruch College (hey, at least I went there for two years more than George Santos) I saw an ad for a junior copywriter at a long-defunct New York clothing store (Weber & Heilbroner). I put together a portfolio of sample ads, dropped it off, was hired, and had my first ad in the New York Times on the day after my 20th birthday, so technically…”I was a teen-aged copywriter!”

    A few weeks later I looked at the resumes of some of the other applicants: Not only were just about all of them college graduates, but many had gone to Ivy League schools, and some had had essays or poetry published in magazines I had heard of. I shuddered and said to my boss, a real Lou Grant-type down to the bottle of Scotch he kept in the bottom drawer of his desk, “If I had known the competition, I never would have applied!”

    And he said, “And if all I cared about was a fancy effin’ degree, I wouldn’t have hired you.”

    By the way, probably the two best known copywriters of that day…Jerry Della Femina and Ed McCabe…didn’t have college degrees either: Jerry was a guy from Brooklyn who went to community college for a year, and Ed (who created classic Volvo and Perdue Chicken campaigns) was a kid from Chicago who didn’t even graduate high school.

    I bet they had even better portfolios than mine.

    Jim Vespe

  8. re: Have you ever gotten a good job that “required” a degree you didn’t have?

    Not ‘gotten.’ But ‘wanted and considered.’

    As I was finishing my Masters, there was an IT class that desperately needed a new professor. I was approached by one of my current professors, as I had demonstrated my academic ability, as well as had a great deal of professional experience.

    I put together a curriculum.And offered to do an ‘apprenticeship,” where a professor would be paid for the class, but I would teach it. If, at any point, I did not meet standards, I could be dismissed.

    The Dean agreed that I had the ability to teach it. And that he did not know anyone else who could teach it. And it was important to the program. But since I did not have a doctorate, a hole in the program was less of an issue than someone without that qualification teaching.

  9. Credentials don’t always equate to results.

    I work in a field for which a degree is typically a required. While I don’t have one I did attend university for which my credits were split across schools in 2 different countries. When I arrived in Cambridge I was able to get a job working with MIT scientists and engineers. Back then there were fewer barriers to entry. This were formative years for which the experiential learning served me better than the degree might have. The other thing that helped immensely is that I traveled and spent time living, studying and working abroad.

    I may have been hired initially because I was well read, easy to work with, interesting to speak to, curious, committed, self motivated, and hyper agile. In any innovative field you have to be able to learn as fast as the world is changing. This is what I aspired to do. I also had to study at home to make sure I could keep up with the highly skilled around me and got advanced certifications. Very helpful were generous colleagues that were happy to share more about their work.

    In the end, my being able to have the resume I have without a degree might say more about me than a degree would. Certainly there were disadvantages–no one would accept me into graduate school –and I might have really liked that! In the early years it probably cost me some growth and opportunities as it’s very easy to stereotype someone that didn’t graduate from college. Once hiring managers would speak to me though, they were always interested in what have done, how I think, relate and sense-make situations. There is no job title of “Organizational Intuitive” but at its core that is probably what I am. I worked out that I do it best in innovative settings.

    • @LST: My father rode the first computer wave with a GED, some Air Force MOS courses, and a lot of hands-on experience. On a few occasions, he headed teams with some very educated people.

      It was not until I got older that we discussed how the lack of degree caught up with him. People unable to bring him on board because they only hired people with degrees. Or one job, where he was investigated, because ‘he must have lied about a degree to get hired.’

      My takeaway is someone is more likely to not get hired for NOT having a degree than to not get hired for HAVING a degree.

      • Very true–I would not recommend my path to others but for I know many with degrees drowning in debt because the degree didn’t equate to financial security. People with degrees get laid off as much as those without them. I was able to buy a home and live while many others had to rent and kept going back to school to buy more time on their loan repayment.

        Ultimately I have to target my searches to innovative companies that care more about results. Any company so bureaucratic as to not hire someone with 20+ of the right experience and a Senior Certification is not a good match for me. I can and have done better.

        The real winners are the plumbers and electricians.

        • @Lahra: ‘Students loans last longer than child support. And are more difficult to get out of.’

          The good new is ‘college degree’ does not have to equal ‘debt.’ It might mean not going to a dream college. Or missing out on the student experience. Maybe even living with Mom and Dad for a few years. But starting out one’s professional debt-free is a cool experience.

          The fact that an eighteen year old can borrow thousands of dollars without a payback plan is disgraceful. Especially if that same eighteen year old applied for a business loan, they would be turned down.

          College plans need to include ‘what is next.” Be it grad school, Peace Corps, ski bum, or work. While the plan is not ironclad, thought needs to be given.

          The trades are great. But often they are physically demanding. And our bodies wear out, as well as injury and disability. One needs to have an exit plan worked out.

          • Agree. But this is not what I see in MA. I see colleges baiting students and offering scholarships the first year. Once they make friends and settle in, the scholarships are pulled and it’s hard to for the young kids to make the decision to leave.

            Additionally many of these school are using adjunct faculty to teach. The adjuncts are not worth the 60k tuition and rely on positive feedback from the students to keep their jobs. It the courses are rigorous they will get back reviews.

            When I was in college in the US the students were all copying their homework and every test was curved. I thought this is a joke- a bunch of kids who got in because their parents could afford to pay the tuition. I left and worked a few years and traveled all over on a tight budget. When I was ready to go back a wrote a letter to a European University’s International program and was accepted with open arms. The cost was 1,000 a semester not included the dorm and board.

            This school was more rigorous than the US and a great value ! I was so turned off by what I had seen in the US I decided it was better to work hard and have my employer supported targeted trainings. And, I always did my part. Who better to learn from than two scientists on a short list to win the Nobel Prize? Thank God I was smart enough to surround myself with smart people because the system would have just destroyed any natural inclination and love of learning.

            • Also — I am writing in a phone so kindly forgive typos as I can’t see full screen when responding.

    • I think this is one of the best discussion threads on all of Ask The Headhunter.

  10. Maybe it’s the fields I’ve worked in, or maybe it’s something else, but I always thought a college degree represented character traits and experiences even beyond the actual degree. Granted, times change – but without discipline and dedication and planning and some degree of financial responsibility at the very least, a degree is unlikely.
    That said, not everyone should be in a formal degree program. Nick’s spot on with this column; personal comments and the nuances within can make all the difference either way.

  11. I was laid off from the IT dept because I did not have a little more schooling than another person hired the same time as me. That person had very little common sense and less experience. The IT dept basically covered for that person. After I left and found another position, that person was left to flounder and eventually released. Management learned a lesson the hard way that you can’t teach common sense, no matter how many degrees an employee might have.

  12. I think that I’ve been hanging out with this group since 1997, but haven’t checked the comments for a few months. Before I offered my comments, I wanted to check out what the other thought processes were.

    Every single one of these today is totally spot on.

    Though I can’t respond to all 16 of you at the moment, let me confirm a few.

    Paul had me at critical thinking and strategic analysis.

    LST had me at well read.

    Becky used one of my favorite words of all time, nuance.

    And Mike mentioned common sense, which many a deep thinker has noted, is not that common. (Though at least one scientist many years back was attempting to develop a test for it.)

    I’ll have to check my numbers sometime, but I think I served the distribution industry for about 45 years, and paralleled 35 years in a non-profit in various leadership positions. I spent 30 years as the person in charge of a warehouse employing 25-50 people, which was a satellite of a 500-600 employee company.

    I roughly completed 3 years of undergrad, flowing into media arts. (I joke that I dropped out of every regular and experimental college that belonged to what eventually became a bonafide university.)

    I also like to joke that I’ve always been too busy creating a new school of thought to be going to school.

    I continue to read more than the average bear, slowly letting go of my professional life and now focusing on end of life studies, which are not morbid in any sense, but as exciting and full of possibilities as any profession.

    Many monikers are attached to my unpublished writings, some of which even I have forgotten, but to list a few:
    Cobalt 60
    Unemployed and Clinically Depressed in the Midwest
    Citizen X (dropped this one when I found out that Eastern Europe uses it to label their serial killers)
    The Lighthouse Keeper
    Death Scout

    Thank you to all the Headhunter Community who have inspired, consoled, and encouraged me over the decades.

    In my worst Arnold accent possible: I’ll be back.

    • Back atcha, TBD. I’ve enjoyed the comments from all your iterations over the years!

  13. This is a great article to add the the discussion.

  14. I think that since the 70s, a college degree has been required for positions mostly to ensure that a person has a certain level of literacy (including writing skills) and numeracy.

    That said, I’m very torn on this topic. I remember a coworker from many years ago who had graduated from a public high school in a large urban district in Texas. He was going to community college at night and showed me a paper he’d written. It just wasn’t college level work; it was obvious his high school hadn’t prepared him for it. But he was a very smart, hardworking person. He left the company and I lost track of him, but I hope he got his degree and advanced in his profession.

    Also, I had a manager who didn’t have a college degree, but she had formidable technical knowledge and experience in her field. From my knowledge of her, she was a very narrow person except for that. I doubt she ever read a book; her hobbies (AFAIK) were pottery and video games. (Nothing wrong with that, of course.) She was promoted to director, but I doubt she’ll be promoted further than that. I can’t quite see her socializing with upper management at the company, you know?

  15. Speaking of, I know of one story where an employer insisted on “18 college credits in X” for a job in 2023, where X is quickly becoming out of date and many schools no longer offer courses in X.

  16. While not a direct example of “18 credits in X courses” the topic makes me think of this book. Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life

    And also an article by the same author titled “solitude and leadership” available online free.

  17. A college degree, previosly BS / BA, then MBA or MS / MA, now probably PhD is in fact ecessary for professional employment.

    MOST without a degree were and remain ignorant and often stupin also. [Lets omit the obvious pandering of listing of exceptions.] 36 credit hours of [select your major] isa lot of information. Another 36 for the master’s degree is a fine addition. Lets take an exampe, if you were to require brain surgery, would you choose a grde schoo dropout, junior high schook drop out, or a high schoo dropout? That should be sufficient to get anyone thinking reasonably.

    That said, most companies require “a degree” not as a knowledge requirement to “do the job,” but as a hammer to keep wages low.

    Today, there is a lot of talk, and action, oby employers requiring arbitrary Performance Improvement Programs. Another updated example of the “keep salaries” down tactics. My experienc is that most managers / executives could not do any of the jobs of those lower in the organization. Is your experience similar?

  18. What could be more questionable than incurring 200k in debt for:
    1) A job that requires years of on the job training and specialization to be a top candidate/promotable.
    2) Incurring this debt and then being held back or kept down by the performance management processes you aptly describe
    3) Getting a PhD and then finding employers try to avoid hiring them as a way to avoid overpaying for high level roles that don’t actually require them.
    4)Signing up for years of debt, delaying or forfeiting home ownership and building equity to get a PhD that isn’t even required for non brain surgeon jobs like Quality and Regulatory.
    5) Using your example, I would like a brain surgeon for surgery and a non MD/PhD plumber to fix my leaking pipes. The best in plumbing/heating is a guy from Serbia. I have no idea of his actual credentials but he fixed a problem all them other guys couldn’t. I am no longer freezing cold in winter.
    6)Using degree requirements to create artificial barriers to entry for roles that don’t really need them, then weaponizing them later to limit and hold someone back from advancement.
    7)Some roles require credentials for hiring. Other roles you hire for How They Think. Are universities teaching students to think or creating a bunch or excellent sheep expertly checking boxes?

    It’s very true that most executives can’t do the lower level roles in an organization. Even more noteworthy, those in non exec roles are closer to the pain points and can solve problems that leaders can’t. Yet, these same people are often left out of succession planning which over focuses on strategic leadership positions and under focuses on key processes.

    I think PhD’s are great for mobility. It’s a key credential to opening doors to live your dreams and be eligible for work authorization all over the world. The designation is a universal language indicating you are desirable, one just has to be very clear what they have signed up for !