Is it discriminatory to require applicants to have a college degree?

    October 1, 2020

    “Bachelor’s degree required.”

    For many managers, it’s almost automatic to specify a four-year degree requirement in a job listing. Why? Because employers assume that only the best and the brightest complete their college education—and they want the best and the brightest on their teams.

    However, this assumption doesn’t take two crucial points into account.

    First, candidates can acquire skills and knowledge through a variety of different channels, including apprenticeships, on-the-job training, and work experience, as well as online courses and webinars from reputable institutions.

    Second, not every job requires a degree. As The Wall Street Journal reports, the current trend of requiring a degree for almost every job is “degree inflation”—or employers demanding a college degree for middle-skills jobs that didn’t require one until recently. In fact, a 2017 study showed that 61 percent of employers had rejected candidates who possessed the required experience and skills simply because they didn’t have a degree.

    When is a degree requirement discriminatory?

    If a degree requirement is a covert way to screen out candidates from a certain protected group, it’s likely to be classified as employment discrimination. For example, according to Insider Higher Ed, approximately 20 percent more Caucasian and Asian students than Black and Hispanic students complete their college education. So, if an employer doesn’t want to hire Black or Hispanic employees, it could use a degree requirement to screen out candidates from these groups—but that would be discriminatory.

    At the same time, if an employer requires a college degree and that requirement has the unintended effect of disqualifying candidates from a protected group, it’s also discriminatory. Let’s say an employer is looking for a developer, and among the applicants are a Caucasian candidate with a degree and a Black candidate with work experience and a certificate that together are equivalent to that degree. If the Caucasian is hired purely because they have a degree, that could be interpreted as discriminatory.

    Establish unbiased hiring practices

    If you want to avoid discriminatory hiring practices, ask yourself whether a job really requires a college degree. For instance, physicians, lawyers, and architects need proof of a considerable amount of education and a certain skill level, so they need advanced degrees.

    Other jobs—for example developer or marketer—can be filled by candidates who have acquired college-level skills and knowledge via less traditional methods such as work experience, on the job training, and online courses.

    Yet other jobs—mainly middle-skills jobs—don’t really require a college degree. To assess whether a role requires a degree or not, look at the tasks a candidate would need to perform and evaluate if they can only be completed by someone who has complete their college education. If not, you might want to consider leveraging skills tests during the hiring process to see which candidates possess the required abilities.

    Knowing whether or not a job truly requires a degree is all about understanding the responsibilities associated with that role. So, take the time to discover which attributes a hire would need to be successful, and adapt your hiring process accordingly.

    At Kelly, we believe everyone should reach their full potential in work and in life. If you like this article and want related content on retaining, managing, recruiting, and hiring employees, visit our business resource center.



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