Education always has been something employers look at when they screen applicants, but over recent years, the debate about whether higher-education degrees are worth the cost has grown increasingly confusing and heated. A new survey from the Rockefeller Foundation and Edelman Intelligence suggests that many companies across the United States might not be helping the situation, potentially contributing to their own poor hiring and retention rates by looking past trainable, non-degreed people.

Key findings

  • Both C-suite leaders (61 percent) and human resource professionals (69 percent) cite retaining strong talent as their top challenge, with 43 percent of employers saying that sourcing enough candidates is a top challenge when filling entry-level jobs.
  • About half (49 percent) of employees note that the jobs they are doing don't use the skills they learned in college, while 86 percent say they're learning skills on the job.
  • The top metric for evaluating the success of an entry-level worker is how well the worker fits the company culture (57 percent), which suggests that non-traditional hiring practices might be more efficient than degrees for screening purposes.
  • Employers aren't offering the perks young workers want the most. Companies offer health care (73 percent) and retirement plans (70 percent), for example, but workers identify other benefits such as a flexible schedule (91 percent) and child care (54) as most important in enabling them to keep working.
  • 69 percent of employers surveyed are screening applicants for a college degree.

The researchers also assert that companies are not taking advantage of more sophisticated screening methods that are available, and that the use of college degrees for screening is denying young people the chance to "get a foot in the door, build skills on the job, and create more meaningful opportunities for life-long career success."

In a discussion of the data, Wall Street Journal reporter Kelsey Gee further notes that

  • 35 percent of entry-level job listings request bachelor's degrees, despite the fact only 1 of every 3 individuals has completed a bachelor's degree by age 34.
  • Employers located in areas where there are colleges and universities are more likely to request bachelor's degrees than those who are not.
  • 40 percent of employers say that high turnover rates connect to employees' dissatisfaction with their jobs.

Gee claims that, according to economists, companies appear to be "up-credentialing" and using college degrees as a "proxy for soft skills." Employers associate the degrees with positive traits such as resiliency and critical thinking ability, even though individuals can acquire and hone those traits in ways other than going to college.

A costly way to get a start

With these types of statistics showing that there is a clear disconnect between businesses and workers, it's worth considering that the current cost of a four-year degree can reach nearly $130,000, based on yearly tuition and fees data from Collegeboard.org:

  • Public 2-year college (in-district students) = $3,440
  • Public 4-year college (in-state students) = $9,410
  • Public 4-year college (out-of-state students) = $23,890
  • Private 4-year college = $32,410

Although the academic value of time at a university or college certainly counts, the research suggests that getting a degree can be a pricey and inefficient way to land an entry-level job, and that on-the-job training might be a better way for companies to fill vacancies faster for the long term. As technology and market demands evolve, hiring practices and educational standards might have to, too.

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Published on: Apr 6, 2017
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