Here are three things that have shot up in American society since the Great Recession of 2008-2009: inequality, deaths of despair among those without a college degree, and the number of jobs that require a college degree to get hired but not to do the actual work. These three facts are probably not completely unrelated. 

Not only does so-called "degree inflation" keep competent workers out of good jobs that they could do well, making life more precarious for those without a degree, but it's also a huge waste of money for companies. Competing for a limited pool of college-educated workers (only about 35 percent of Americans have a four-year degree) forces businesses to overpay for talent.

If you're hiring a surgeon or quant, fancy qualifications are essential. But for a huge number of jobs, both workers and companies benefit when degree requirements are dropped. 

I'm not being original in pointing this out. Experts have been yelling about this problem for years, but progress has been glacial. Little happy news came out of the pandemic, but new research out of Harvard may have uncovered some. Thanks at least in part to the Covid-related labor reshuffle, employers might finally be seeing the light about requiring unnecessary college degrees. 

One of the pandemic's few silver linings

To investigate whether the pandemic is actually making a dent in whether employers are requiring degrees, Harvard researchers Joseph Fuller and Christina Langer partnered with Emsi Burning Glass, a labor-market data company, to examine 51 million jobs posted between 2017 and 2020. Their data wrangling yielded cheerful results. 

"Employers are indeed resetting degree requirements in a wide variety of roles. The change is most noticeable for middle-skill positions--defined as those requiring some post-secondary education or training but less than a four-year degree. To a lesser extent, the change is also noticeable at some companies for higher-skill positions," Fuller, Langer, and Burning Glass's Matt Sigelman report in Harvard Business Review

Why are companies finally heeding the call to stop being so degree-obsessed? The research team cites two interlocking factors. One was a general refocusing on skills over degrees during the hot job market of 2017-2019. The second factor is the recent pandemic-related labor shock

"Desperate to find skilled workers during the pandemic, which has been the biggest health crisis of modern times, many employers have been willing, at least temporarily, to forgo degree requirements for many jobs," they write. 

Is degree deflation here to stay? 

The pandemic is, hopefully, temporary. Will employers' newfound open-mindedness toward workers without degrees last? It's hard to say, but there are reasons to be hopeful. 

"The shift may reflect only a temporary accommodation in the face of an emergency ... but nonetheless, given its scale, it's likely to teach us a lot about whether workers who have degrees actually perform better than newly hired workers who do not," the researchers note. They stress previous studies show performance differences between those with and without degrees "are often marginal outside specific fields, such as professional services and finance."

Academics will no doubt be keeping a close eye on job requirements as the virus fades, but for entrepreneurs and hiring managers, the message is already clear. It's time to take a hard look at how you hire. If you're still clinging to the reassurance of a college degree when it's not strictly necessary, competing for talent is just going to get harder.

Maybe it's time to rethink your requirements. For many jobs, you will get near equal performance for less cost. And you'll be doing your bit to make American society fairer and more equitable, too.