A Matter of Degree

Without a doubt, there could be no one, but no one, worse to communicate this change.

The bizarre choice of spokesmodel for the Trump family business notwithstanding, does that make the Executive Order a bad idea?

America’s private employers have modernized their recruitment practices to better identify and secure talent through skills- and competency-based hiring.  As the modern workforce evolves, the Federal Government requires a more efficient approach to hiring.  Employers adopting skills- and competency-based hiring recognize that an overreliance on college degrees excludes capable candidates and undermines labor-market efficiencies.  Degree-based hiring is especially likely to exclude qualified candidates for jobs related to emerging technologies and those with weak connections between educational attainment and the skills or competencies required to perform them.  Moreover, unnecessary obstacles to opportunity disproportionately burden low-income Americans and decrease economic mobility.

Whether, and to what degree, this is true is debatable. Sure, companies don’t care if their coders have a degree, but whether they can code, but they still routinely require degrees for many positions, and use algos to vet applicants so that they never see applicants who fail to meet the hiring criteria which often bears no serious connection with the job.

But is this shift signalling that hospitals won’t require MDs of its docs, or bridges won’t be built by engineers anymore? Not quite.

Trump is ordering that the federal personnel management office within six months revise qualifications it requires for jobs with the U.S. government.

A college degree will be required only if mandated by law, or if agencies filling a position believe a college degree is necessary.

Mike Rigas, the acting director of the federal Office of Personnel Management, acknowledged during a briefing with reporters that a degree will still be necessary in some jobs.

But this remains remarkably vague. In some fields, a degree serves as a baseline of competency, perhaps not much but at least a minimal indication of some knowledge required for the performance of a job.

“While education credentials are critical in many lines of work, such as the medical and legal fields, their necessity is far less clear in other areas,” Rigas said.

Administration officials didn’t identify which jobs will no longer require a college education. But the senior official said, for instance, it’s unfair that applicants who have a degree, even one unrelated to the job they’re applying for, currently are deemed more qualified than another candidate who may have greater skills but no degree.

Why would Trump do this? The contention is that he’s pandering to his un-educated base, to offer them government jobs even though they lack a college degree.

The move appeared to be a nod to voters without college degrees who strongly supported Trump in his election and are key to his re-election hopes. In making the change, Brooke Rollins, Trump’s acting domestic policy adviser, told reporters that the order will create more job pathways for the two-thirds of Americans who do not have college degrees.

Then again, the opportunity this presents will also inure to the benefit of many who want nothing to do with Trump, particularly minority job applicants for whom a college degree was beyond their reach.

College degrees have become idealized over the past 50 years, a magical gateway to success without regard to what the education or degree actually contributes to the individual’s ability to perform a task. There used to be a joke about getting a degree in “underwater basket weaving” years ago. Today, other disciplines are thrown out to be of dubious use in employment. Even worse, the pervasiveness of degrees as barriers to entry have grown with the explosion of people going to college. As many grads swiftly learned, their undergrad degrees assured them no job, as entry level positions would require a master’s degree since there were so many unemployed people floating around with a masters.

Was it needed? Was it even useful?

We also assumed that a more educated workforce was, in itself, an unmitigated good. Police departments began requiring a college degree for hiring. Are they better for it, or was it merely a “common sense” solution that failed to pan out the way it was intended?

Walter Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges, and a member of an Ivanka Trump-led workforce advisory board, which played a role in the order’s creation, said in an interview that it won’t change the important role community colleges play in teaching skills the federal government will continue to look for in job candidates.

“I don’t see it as skills versus degrees,” he said.

And then there’s an industry for which a degree is their stock in trade.

Doing away with the requirement for applicants to have a college degree in more cases will not lessen the value of a degree, he said. “I think we’re years away from businesses saying individuals don’t need college credentials,” he said.

Hartle also didn’t see the order as a blow to higher education. “I don’t think seeking highly skilled people is incompatible with people who have a college degree,” he said.

There are undoubtedly jobs that require a directed education to perform. But have we taken it too far by requiring a college degree for positions that require no specialized knowledge or education? For many young people, a college degree means amassing substantial debt, sitting through boring lectures and, too often, being required to take courses that are intended to indoctrinate rather than educate.

At the same time, there are very real doubts about the rigors of a college education, as they’ve been watered down lest any student flunk out or suffer a traumatic loss of self-esteem. Should the requirement of a college degree remain a stumbling block to positions just because we’ve put them on a pedestal?

22 thoughts on “A Matter of Degree

  1. DaveL

    Let’s face it, the main reason for degree requirements is that, for people making hiring decisions, criteria that can significantly narrow the field with minimal effort on their part, while simultaneously being presumptively legal, are more valuable than gold. Talk about supposed generalized benefits of earning a degree, like learning how to think, or demonstrating the ability to follow through on commitments, are just post-hoc rationalizations. If courts gave the same deference to employers who rejected anybody who didn’t own a dog, we’d have similar rationalizations about “demonstrating responsibility”, developing empathy, or valuing loyalty.

    However, as with most policies, whether it turns out to be a good thing, a bad thing, or not really anything at all, is going to depend a lot on the details of how it’s implemented. Are they actually going to create new methods for evaluating job skills that are scientifically valid and free of bias? I’ll believe it when I see it.

    1. SHG Post author

      At the time degrees emerged as a basic criterion, there was some credit to the merit-based contention. After all, it was objective, and precluded hiring your second cousin. Has it since become little more than an easy vetting device? Probably. Most sound ideas eventually forget why they came about and are reduced to pointless rubrics.

  2. John Barleycorn

    Now if only every state, instead of only four, would let you take the bar exam without going to law school we might be able to have nice things again eh?

    1. SHG Post author

      If they did, they would make oodles of money from people who would never pass the bar exam. It’s just foolish to refuse to take their money.

      1. Guitardave

        It was popular in the bluegrass world because J.D. Crowe and the New South ( when Tony Rice was singing and playing guitar) did a cover of it. I played it for years before i knew it was a Lightfoot tune.

  3. Jake

    No surprise here, move along. That the GOP must lower the bar for political appointees was inevitable, as their intentional strategy of turning the Republican base into knuckle-dragging, mouth breathers bore the strangest of orange fruit.

    And what better way than to send Nepotism Barbie out to tell us all about it, when the entire point of your presidency is to own the libs? I give this tactic an A+

      1. Jake

        Right. So, there are numerous ways to improve the lives of low/no education & poor without casting them into roles for which they lack the knowledge and thinking skills to succeed in. The sooner we stop giving tax breaks to the rich, the sooner we can upgrade our infrastructure for the 21st century. Then we’ll be having very different conversations about immigration since there won’t be enough workers to achieve our goals.

            1. SHG Post author

              You really need to read what you write with a more critical eye. It would save you from saying a shitton of stupid things.

  4. Dan H

    As recently as five years ago, my professions accepted both a masters degree or experience for hiring into my position. That has since changed to only allowing a degree from programs accredited by certain US associations.

    The result has led to a more middle class skewing and less international and diverse group of recent hires. As college availability changes, this result might change as well. There is an observable difference in quality of the candidates though., The skills of the people who learned on the job are often better honed than the skills of the recent graduates which throws a big question mark on the value of the degree for the public serving job we do.

    Not that HR cares about any of this as their main aim is to prevent people from making decisions that the County I work for may be held liable for. As others have said, the degree is a nifty way of both taking a way the opportunity to hire one’s friends or relatives, while also selling the idea of a better educated and prepared work (woke) force. It also allows labor folks like me to ask for more money because of the degree requirement.

    Ultimately, my own opinion is that for my own profession, this is a good move that will scale down the cost of my profession without sacrificing the quality of the work we do. It will also allow a more diverse group of people to have access to this job.

    1. SHG Post author

      You make a valuable point that I didn’t think about before: Using college degrees creates an outward appearance of a “better educated” and, thus, more legitimate workforce. It provide workers with attributed credibility even if they have no skills beyond a degree. It sounds better to the public, customer, outsider, because they have something to objective to latch onto that they can understand, even if it means nothing.

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