Companies struggle to break up with diplomas

More companies are moving to tear the "paper ceiling" by removing degree requirements from job postings that could be done without them. But there's been more talk than progress, according to a recent Harvard Business School report

Harvard Business School and The Burning Glass Institute, a research organization gathering data on "the future of work and workers," studied a sample of 11,300 roles at large firms, where they could observe hiring volume for at least one year before and after a firm removed a degree requirement. 

From 2014 to 2023, the annual number of roles that dropped degree requirements nearly quadrupled. But despite the shift, firms only hired about 3.5% more workers without a BA; less than 1 in 700 candidates without degrees have enjoyed a new opportunity. 

About 45% of firms "seem to make a change in name only, with no meaningful difference in actual hiring behavior following their removal of stated requirements from their postings," according to the report. 

The healthcare and social services industry has been among the slowest to hire workers without a degree, averaging a 17% decrease in BA share in roles that dropped requirements. 

Even if a company removes an unnecessary degree requirement, its hiring managers might be biased towards candidates with higher education, according to Joseph Fuller, management professor at Harvard Business School and co-author of the report. 

"All these companies are doing is removing a prohibition," Mr. Fuller told The Wall Street Journal. "So the hiring manager is not saying, 'Oh, we should now be moving affirmatively to hire someone on a skills basis without relying on credentials.' They're saying, 'If our favorite candidate has no B.A., we're no longer prohibited from hiring them.'"

He shared a similar sentiment with Bloomberg, saying, "Hiring is a relative phenomenon: If you have four candidates and you’re satisfied any of them can do the job, how are you going to pick? Why wouldn’t you take the person with the college degree?"

Many hiring managers with degrees overestimate the percentage of the population that has graduated from college, leading them to prioritize degrees further, according to research from Opportunity@Work, the nonprofit that popularized the term "paper ceiling." In reality, one-third of Americans over the age of 25 do not have a degree, rendering them ineligible for many technical and managerial roles; a recent Quartz report found that when degrees are required, 76 percent of Black, 83 percent of Latino, 81 percent of rural and nearly 70 percent of veteran workers are drained from the talent pool. Removing degree requirements could help improve economic mobility for these groups. 

"If you’re putting unnecessary requirements on jobs, you’re automatically removing 62% of the population that could apply," Kelli Jordan, vice president of growth and development at IBM, told the Journal

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