Do You Still Need a Bachelor’s Degree?

For certain careers, a bachelor's degree is an absolute necessity. But it's no longer the only pathway to a growing number of high-paying jobs.

Updated August 19, 2022

Edited by Darlene Earnest
Do You Still Need a Bachelor’s Degree?
Future of Learning Future of Work Opinion & Analysis
Photo by Julie Thurston / Moment Open / Getty Images

  • Maryland no longer will require a bachelor's degree for many of its state jobs. Instead, it will seek employees Skilled Through Alternative Routes (STARs).
  • This policy change particularly benefits racial minorities with lower degree-completion rates.
  • The move follows a trend set by tech companies that recognize degree alternatives in hiring practices.
  • A new BestColleges survey reveals most college students believe a four-year degree isn't the only pathway to success.

If you don't have a bachelor's degree but want a good job, what do you do?

Move to Maryland.

The state recently became the first in the nation to eliminate the bachelor's degree as a requirement for thousands of public jobs.

Maryland's initiative mirrors hiring practices initiated by major tech companies such as Google and IBM, which similarly dropped the baccalaureate requirement for many positions. And a new study suggests this trend is growing across industries.

Is the bachelor's degree still the best gateway to good jobs, or do alternative routes promise similar opportunities? And who benefits most from this migration away from requiring degrees?

Maryland Seeks 'STARs' to Fill Jobs

In March, Gov. Larry Hogan announced Maryland's initiative to drop the bachelor's degree requirement for many of its state jobs. Instead, the state will look for "STARs" to fill positions in information technology, administration, and customer service.

STARs are people who are "Skilled Through Alternative Routes." They're high school graduates who are 25 or older and have developed skills through community colleges, apprenticeships, military service, coding boot camps, and work experience.

That describes about 70 million people nationwide, says Opportunity@Work, an organization whose mission is to "rewire the U.S. labor market" and help achieve "a future in which employers hire people based on their skills rather than their pedigree."

The organization is helping Maryland reclassify its openings to determine which positions do and do not require a four-year degree. It also is connecting workers to state government employment opportunities through its database called "Stellarworx." Almost half — 47% — of Maryland's workers qualify as STARs.

Maryland's move, noted Opportunity@Work's Bridgette Gray in an Inside Higher Ed podcast, not only addresses the state's labor shortage but also creates new avenues for upward mobility.

"The state of Maryland really wanted to create an equitable process where more Marylanders can see themselves in opportunities to move into the middle class," she said.

Such opportunities particularly benefit underrepresented populations with lower degree-completion rates. According to the most recent census data (2020), while 40.1% of white people and 58.1% of Asian Americans 25 and older hold a bachelor's degree, the same is true for only 26.1% of Black people and 18.8% of Latino/as.

Among workers nationwide, 61% of Black people, 55% of Latino/as, 66% of rural residents, and 61% of veterans are STARs, says Maryland's announcement.

"For diversity goals, the biggest lever you can pull is eliminating the four-year degree filter," Elyse Rosenblum, managing director of Grads of Life, an agency promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) workplace strategies, told The New York Times.

Despite this shift away from degree requirements, Gray doesn't dismiss college as a viable route to employment but instead champions multiple on-ramps to rewarding careers. It's not "college or," she said, but "college and."

"It doesn't mean overlooking anyone with a four-year degree," Gray said, "but being intentional in thinking about the jobs that don't need a four-year degree ..."

"Do you need a degree to code? No, you need curiosity, and you need to be a lifelong learner."

Tech Giants Don't Require Degrees for Many Jobs

Google and IBM evidently don't think you need a degree to code or hold many other tech positions.

After earning a Google certificate in just six months, graduates can become data analysts or UX designers making more than $60,000 a year. Kent Walker, Google's senior vice president of global affairs, said the company considers these certificates equal to a four-year college degree in the hiring process.

Even before the pandemic hit, IBM wasn't demanding four-year degrees for many of its tech positions. Writing in USA Today in 2016, Ginni Rometty, IBM's chairman, president, and CEO at the time, noted the rise of "new collar" jobs that don't require college degrees.

"What matters most is that these employees — with jobs such as cloud computing technicians and services delivery specialists — have relevant skills, often obtained through vocational training," Rometty wrote.

That mindset persists to this day, thanks in part to the pandemic and the resulting "Great Resignation" that's left the tech industry with 1 million unfilled openings. Half of IBM's jobs don't call for a bachelor's degree.

"It's more about how we're recalibrating our mindset to think about qualifications differently," said Kelli Jordan, IBM's director of career, skills, and performance.

These companies aren't the only tech giants abandoning degree requirements. Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, and Tesla have similar policies in place, and the trend is growing across several industries.

In fact, a 2022 Indeed survey found that 59% of employers who have a bachelor's degree requirement are considering removing it, while 30% of them said doing so would result in more diverse talent.

And in a new BestColleges survey, soon to be released, 64% of college students agreed that "a college education shouldn't be necessary to be successful." Only 14% believe that it should be. What's more, almost three-quarters — 74% — agreed that college is but "one option among many possible paths to success."

Degree Inflation and the 'Structural Reset'

"Jobs do not require four-year college degrees. Employers do."

That's the opening salvo in a new study from the Burning Glass Institute titled "The Emerging Degree Reset," which offers an extensive analysis of some 51 million job postings across several industries, with a particular focus on the high-tech sector.

The report explains how increased demand for jobs during the Great Recession of 2008 led to "degree inflation." Faced with a flood of applicants vying for limited jobs — 6.6 job-seekers competing for each opening — employers began requiring bachelor's degrees for positions that previously didn't require one. Screening out resumes that didn't reflect a four-year credential simplified the hiring process for overwhelmed recruiters.

During the recession, the number of vacancies requiring a bachelor's degree increased by more than 10 percentage points, notes the report. And once the bar had been set at the baccalaureate level, it remained there for some time after the recession subsided. Gradually, though, industries experienced what Burning Glass calls a "structural reset" that decreased degree requirements for many positions.

That process was accelerated by the pandemic. The resulting "Great Resignation" led to a labor shortage and a "cyclical reset" of job classifications that further reduced the baccalaureate requirement — what the report calls "downcredentialing."

Between 2017 and 2019, 46% of middle-skill and 31% of high-skill occupations experienced degree resets, the report claims. Projections suggest that over the next five years, an additional 1.4 million jobs could become available to employees without college degrees.

When employers do drop degree requirements, they become more specific about certain skills they seek. Curiously, though, they focus on soft skills, not technical acumen.

"That suggests that companies previously associated having a degree with superior social and soft skills," the report states, "ranging from those that are more easily evaluated, such as written and oral communications, to those less easily defined, such as commitment, self-discipline, and the ability to participate effectively in unfamiliar groups."

And of course, there will always be jobs that require at least a bachelor's degree. The Burning Glass report estimates some 25% of positions — including physicians and engineers — are predicated on having one.

But for those "middle-skilled" jobs, the terrain is quickly shifting. Quicker and cheaper pathways such as apprenticeship programs and trade schools continue to emerge as entrees into fields such as healthcare, information technology, cybersecurity, hospitality, law enforcement, financial services, and graphic design.

It's no wonder degree-seeking college enrollments have declined for 13 straight years, noted Brandon Busteed, chief partnership officer and global head of learn-work innovation at Kaplan, in the Inside Higher Ed podcast.

"There's a real story here that people are turning to other alternatives," he said.

Busteed also suggests Maryland's move could influence policymakers at the state and federal levels, especially those who already question the value of a college education.

"This is a fairly prominent state, a state that sits nestled up against D.C. and federal politics and visibility, that has come out and said, 'Hey, we've looked at this carefully, and we're not so sure that we need to require a degree for these jobs,'" Busteed said.

Calling Maryland a "trend-setter," Gray indeed confirmed additional states have contacted her organization saying they also wish to remove degree requirements from many of their public jobs.

"We've also had this trickle down to county government as well as city government jobs," Gray said, "so that is a trend."