Employers Drop College Degree Requirements

Skills-based hiring for a wide range of roles is on the rise, according to a recent Burning Glass Institute report.
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Updated on September 22, 2023
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  • Between 2017 and 2019, 46% of middle-skill jobs and 31% of high-skill jobs dropped or lowered their degree requirements.
  • Decreased degree requirements seem to be a long-term trend.
  • If this trend continues, 1.4 million jobs could open up to job-seekers who do not have degrees.

Job listings have seen a major change over the last few years: Employers have increasingly dropped degree requirements in favor of specific skill sets.

According to a recent report from the Burning Glass Institute, this trend gained momentum from 2017-2019. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic further accelerated employers' shift away from degree requirements.

Harvard Business Review partnered with Emsi Burning Glass to research this "degree reset," finding that 46% of middle-skill jobs and 31% of high-skill jobs dropped or lowered their degree requirements between 2017 and 2019. Of all degree resets studied, most (63%) appeared to be "structural resets" rather than short-term responses to the pandemic, "representing a measured and potentially permanent shift in hiring practices," according to the report.

Researchers predict that if the degree reset trend continues, an additional 1.4 million jobs could open up to workers without college degrees over the next five years.

According to the Burning Glass Institute report, IT and managerial occupations were the most likely to have experienced a structural degree reset between 2017 and 2019. High-skill occupations, or jobs featuring more significant technical or analytical requirements, were particularly likely to see employers limit credential mandates.

Percent Change In Postings Requiring A Degree for High-Skill Occupations, 2017-2020
Occupation Percent change, 2017-2019 Percent change, 2019-2020
Insurance Sales Agent -32.98% -11.95%
Loan Officer -11.21% -16.9%
Paralegal/Legal Assistant -9.30% -8.52%
Personal Financial Advisor -8.56% -8.06%
Claims Specialist/Adjuster/Examiner -8.51% -4.88%

Source: Burning Glass Institute

Several middle-skill occupations also saw significant decreases in degree-required job postings prior to the pandemic, as illustrated in the table below.

Percent Change In Postings Requiring A Degree for Middle-Skill Occupations, 2017-2020
Occupation Percent change, 2017-2019 Percent change, 2019-2020
Real Estate Agent/Broker -23.64% -22.53%
Property/ Real Estate/ Community Manager -16.41% -10.24%
Maintenance/ Service Supervisor -14.39% -11.98%
Retail Store Manager/ Supervisor -9.81% -15.47%
Human Resources Assistant -5.16% -5.19%

Source: Burning Glass Institute

Over the last few years, the technology industry has become particularly known for replacing degree requirements with strong skill conditions. However, Burning Glass researchers found that as a whole, the tech industry still demands degrees at an above-average rate. For example, Oracle still requires degrees in over 90% of its job listings, according to the report.

Even so, degree requirements in tech vary greatly among companies and specific roles. Only 11% of job postings for computer support specialists at Amazon require a college degree. That's 13% below the national average for that role.

Likewise, just 31% of postings for software developers and engineers at IBM specify degree requirements. This falls 29% below the national average.

As of 2021, job postings indicated that companies like Apple and Google still relied heavily on degree requirements. Still, both companies have significantly reduced degree requirements since 2017.

Despite recent degree resets, degree requirements are unlikely to disappear entirely. Many employers believe degree mandates weed out candidates who lack important skills that are learned through degree programs.

As degree requirements continue to lessen, however, workers must still find ways to build their skill sets. One way to do this is through non-degree credential programs, which have gained significant popularity in recent years.