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Is a College Degree Really Required for that Job?

When you have an open position, it's important to accurately identify the qualifications needed for the role. However, sometimes employers inflate those qualifications in the hopes of finding top talent, a practice often referred to as credential inflation. Below are some of the pitfalls of this approach and some guidelines for avoiding credential inflation.

What could go wrong?

If your educational requirements exceed those needed for the position, it may be difficult to fill the role and you may be overlooking otherwise qualified candidates. For example, not every job requires a bachelor's degree, but many employers include it as a qualification regardless of the position.

Inflating educational requirements may also undermine the value of on-the-job experience and valuable skills that can only be developed outside of the classroom. Further, the practice may lead to discrimination claims if it excludes certain protected groups who tend to graduate college at lower rates. The costs of finding and employing individuals with a college degree also tend to be higher.

How to avoid credential inflation:

To avoid credential inflation, look carefully at each position and identify the job-related skills needed in order to be successful. Solicit input from people currently in the role as well as supervisors to ensure you have an accurate list of the hard skills (such as programming) and soft skills (such as empathy) needed for the position. Then, when deciding whether to require a degree or other credential, consider the following questions:

  • Is there a law or regulation that requires a certain level of education, certification, or licensing for the position? For instance, certain jobs in healthcare, social services, or professional services may require advanced degrees and/or licenses and certifications.
  • Could an applicant obtain the necessary skills without a college degree?
  • Are there real differences in the jobs for which you would require a college degree and those for which you don't?
  • What percentage of existing employees in the same role have a college degree? How does performance compare among employees with and without a degree?
  • Can relevant work experience and nontraditional paths (such as community-based training, code-writing academies, and apprenticeships) be a substitute for formal education?
  • Would on-the-job and other training be a viable alternative to education requirements?
  • Would you be using education as a proxy for other skills, such as reading and writing? If so, is there a better way to assess those skills without requiring a degree?
  • Would the skills and knowledge obtained through a college degree be transferrable to the job?
  • Do certain credentials provide a competitive advantage and make a difference in clients' decision-making process?
  • What are the costs of recruiting, compensation, and turnover for employing workers with a degree compared to those without a degree?

Assessing applicants' skills:

The job interview, particularly a behavioral-based interview, can help you assess an applicant's skills. These types of interviews ask about a candidate's experience handling specific work challenges that they would likely face in the new job and can be an excellent predictor of performance.

Beyond interviews, some employers use pre-employment tests to assess candidates, such as cognitive tests and job simulations (for example, testing how many words per minute an administrative assistant can type). If you intend to use pre-employment testing, consider these guidelines:

  • Comply with nondiscrimination laws. Make sure pre-employment testing complies with all applicable federal, state, and local nondiscrimination laws. For instance, you may not design or use the tests to discriminate against applicants based on a protected characteristic (race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, age, or another protected class). If there is more than one way to accomplish a task, consider alternative ways to demonstrate competency to ensure the opportunity is open to a wide, inclusive base of applicants.
  • Be consistent. All similarly situated applicants should be subject to the same tests. For example, if physical agility is essential to perform the job, you should test all applicants applying for the position.
  • Assess impact. Employment tests should be job-related and consistent with business necessity, and generally should not disproportionately exclude applicants in a protected class. If your selection process screens out a protected group, determine whether there is another test available that would be equally effective in predicting job performance.
  • Validate tests. Before implementing pre-employment tests, it's a best practice to validate the tests for the positions and purposes for which you plan to use them (see the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures for information on validating tests). Review tests when job requirements change to ensure continued validity.

Conclusion:

Make sure the job qualifications you require match the skills needed on the job and that all your screening and selection practices comply with federal, state, and local nondiscrimination laws.

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