The debate over the value of a college education appears to be settled. Not only do employers value employees with a bachelor’s degree, they may actually value them too much.
The fact is there’s a dramatic credentials gap in the American workforce between the education levels employers are requesting in job postings and the education levels of workers already in those jobs. In some middle-skill occupations – jobs that historically require more than a high school diploma and less than a B.A./B.S.—the gap between postings that ask for a bachelor’s and the number of workers who actually have one can be 20 percentage points or more.
This “upcredentialing” trend is happening even when the specific skills requested in a job are the same whether the employer is seeking a college graduate or not, according to an analysis by the labor market firm Burning Glass Technologies. The findings are contained in the Burning Glass report titled “Moving the Goalposts: How Demand for a Bachelor’s Degree Is Reshaping the Workforce.”
Half of IT help desk openings now require a bachelor’s degree, for example, even though the specific skills requested are typically the same in B.A./B.S. and non-bachelor’s postings. In many cases, employers are demanding a bachelor’s degree even when it makes positions harder or more expensive to fill.
What this suggests is that many employers are using the bachelor’s degree as a proxy for quality employees—a rough, rule-of-thumb screening mechanism to sort through the resume pile. Employers believe in the college experience, not just as an incubator for job-specific skills but particularly for the so-called soft skills, such as writing, analytical thinking and even maturity.
On the surface, this sounds like a victory for higher education: more proof that a bachelor’s degree will continue to be a real asset in the job market. There is also clear evidence that many employers now require a B.A./B.S. because their jobs are becoming more complex, more technology-driven and more analytical. A significant portion of jobs for drafters, for example, now call for talent that more closely resembles junior engineers than technicians. Similarly, hospitals are increasingly seeking registered nurses with a B.A., for example, because medical care and the nurse’s role are becoming more complex. That trend will certainly continue.
However, with college degrees now required to gain entrance to so many jobs that have not required one in the past, it is not clear that students are coming out ahead. A middle-skills job that demands a B.A./B.S. is still a middle-skills job. By making the investment in a bachelor’s degree, students expect to climb higher on the career ladder than the middle-skill work carried out by their parents.
Nor is the long-term dominance of the four-year degree secure. The data suggest that, across many occupations, employers’ preference for candidates with a B.A./B.S. is more a matter of lack of alternatives. It’s not so much that B.A./B.S. graduates show up ready for work. It’s that employers believe they are generally more likely to be ready than high school graduates. In the absence of any other validation, they turn to the bachelor’s degree as the only meaningful proxy they can find. (As evidence that the B.A./B.S. degree itself doesn’t guarantee the specific workplace skills employers need, consider the surging popularity of specialized master’s degree programs designed to prepare graduates for targeted, high-demand jobs; see Sean Gallagher’s “Yes, Master’s: A Graduate Degree’s Moment in the Age of Higher Education Innovation” which appeared in NEJHE on Aug. 5, 2014.)
For community colleges and postsecondary training programs, the fact that many employers are passing over their graduates in favor of more expensive, harder-to-fill B.A./B.S. candidates indicates that employers are skeptical as to whether associate degrees or other sub-baccalaureate credentials meet their needs. These programs are, or should be, the driving engine of the middle-skill workforce. The fact that employers are looking farther up the higher education chain shows the extent to which the existing talent pipeline is broken for many occupations.
The credibility problem for sub-baccalaureate credentials is leaving a wide void. With only approximately one-third of the U.S. workforce holding a bachelor’s degree, sending a higher percentage of Americans to four-year colleges isn’t a practical solution to our workforce issues—simply on the basis of capacity, if nothing else. For employers, having to post middle-skill jobs at the college graduate-level means that jobs are taking them longer to fill and are often commanding higher salaries. The millions of workers without a college degree then increasingly find themselves shut out of career pathways that have traditionally supported a middle-class lifestyle.
Yet there is also an opportunity here for community colleges. There has always been a greater focus on meeting the needs of the job market at these institutions. So in many ways, two-year institutions are well-prepared to respond to this challenge.
If community colleges tailor their programs not simply to occupations but rather to the skills employers really need within those jobs, while improving their students’ “soft skills,” they could produce a better-trained workforce—and do it less expensively than four-year colleges. Until recently, however, postsecondary institutions lacked a window into the specific requirements of local employers. Even programs aimed toward high-demand jobs, such as those that propelled the for-profit sector, often proved to be misaligned which meant that even programs aimed toward high-demand jobs often proved to be misaligned. Now a new generation of labor market data has been providing the visibility needed to allow schools to match the changing job market more nimbly.
A rule of thumb only thrives when a more precise measurement is lacking. The data show that those jobs most resistant to degree inflation are those, such as in healthcare, for which there is a strong certification or licensure infrastructure. Part of the solution to this middle-skills challenge then is for community colleges to develop programs, curriculum and validation mechanisms that represent alternatives to the B.A./B.S. and are more precisely attuned to what the job market demands.
Matt Sigelman is CEO of Burning Glass Technologies, a labor market analysis firm.