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Degree requirements dropped as equity sought in workplace

May 30, 2019
By: Ellen Marrison

At a time when higher education degrees are both under scrutiny and lauded, one county government in Colorado is experimenting with an initiative that has eliminated degree requirements for more than 80 positions. It wasn’t the value of the degree that prompted the move, but the question of equity and wanting to achieve a more inclusive workforce. While such moves are rare, similar efforts may blaze the way to new workforce requirements and advancements and help inclusion.

In Boulder County, Colorado, Human Resource Director Julia Yager said the county had been focusing on ways to increase equity and inclusion in the workforce for several years before all the resources were in place to effectively tackle the issue.

The change was implemented not to lower standards for the jobs, but to acknowledge that not all the jobs required a degree and that experience could be as great a measure of success in some classifications.

“It opens doors for people who have traditionally not had the opportunity,” Yager said. She noted that historically people in marginal groups have not had equitable access to all positions as well as educational attainment opportunities, and that systemic racism is partly to blame.

Each job classification was carefully considered to determine whether a degree was truly necessary to do the job. Once a list was compiled and the Fair Labor Standards Act reviewed for compliance, the list was sent to elected officials, department heads and senior leadership teams for review, which led to the county dropping the degree requirement for 81 different classifications.

Yager said she has had overwhelming support for the move, but she also acknowledged that she might not hear all the feedback. She noted that degrees are still valued and pay ranges will not be lowered.

A challenge in changing the job requirements includes shifting the mindset of the hiring managers to get them to work against any bias they may hold and Yager said it might take one-on-one education with the hiring managers to get them to think more about equitable hiring practices.

Debbie Hughes, a senior strategist at Entangled Solutions, a strategy and innovation consultancy for education, works to find talent and workforce solutions to create a systemic shift toward creating the talent a company needs now and in the future. She said change happens fast, and businesses need to lean in to new methods of training and education before a real shift in the marketplace can be achieved.

Hughes noted that degrees have been a job requirement in many instances as they serve as a proxy for a set of skills. When companies or organizations begin to redefine those requirements, it is incumbent on human resource departments to be able to identify candidates that have those skills, and Hughes emphasized that it is important that the right infrastructure is in place to make that happen.

“The question becomes, what are you asking for in its place,” Hughes said. She noted that it is important to define what skills are required at all levels and be aware of what sort of jobs are opening with new requirements.

A new approach will have to include lifelong learning, credit for life experiences, credentials, access to training and personalized pathways for those coming into the workplace, she said. When removing proxies that have stood for certain skill sets, Hughes cautions that new models allowing for a greater access to the jobs need to be developed to take their place. While she currently does not see that happening on a large scale, she is seeing experimentation on how best to do that. With the current tight labor market, Hughes said there has been more movement to broadening access, but the real hope is that it such efforts remain a long-term commitment.

Hughes has seen an evolution in thinking to be open to the changes in hiring practices, and she maintains that higher education is not the only element that needs to change. “The system has been set up to change others, not ourselves,” Hughes said. However, the conversations are happening and university presidents are moving as quickly as possible to respond to business needs, she said.

While Hughes has seen pockets of change happening, she believes a tipping point that will achieve dramatic change across the nation has not yet been reached.

In Boulder, Yager admits that the county is creating new pathways.

“We do pride ourselves on being progressive,” Yager said. She is willing to challenge standards that have required degrees when there is no compelling reason for that standard, she said. “I’m comfortable with bucking trends and forging a different path.”

In fact, Yager said she even questions whether degrees are necessary in some high-level administration positions. While there may be strong interest in insisting on degree requirements for particular director level positions, she posits the question, “What if we considered someone with 25 years of experience, but no degree?” She noted that to do management well, one has to actually practice it and a four-year degree does not give that same amount of experience.

While it is still too early to tell whether the change is successful, Yager said she has found it exciting that other organizations have reached out to her inquiring how to implement a similar effort. She said they will track the changes and measure success by determining whether they have more applications for positions that do not require degrees once those jobs open, when people without degrees are interviewed, and when they are able to hire and promote people who do not have degrees.

Other efforts are also underway that are reviewing the value of postsecondary degrees, with equity taking a main role in the reviews. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently announced the formation of a Postsecondary Value Commission that will focus on the economic returns of education after high school and noted that equity is at the center of the effort. Its focus statement reads, “It is essential to understand whether and how colleges and universities create value for all students, especially low-income students and students of color, who experience greater challenges achieving certificates and degrees and realizing their economic benefits.” The commission is expected to help colleges and universities take a critical look at both how and how well they are contributing to economic opportunity for today’s students, and will share its findings by mid 2020.

In looking at the forces affecting the workforce and higher education, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor issued a report on the value of a college degree in light of the Higher Education Act reauthorization consideration. The report noted that while college is a worthy investment for state governments and yields a large return for individuals, barriers continue to prevent many students of color and low-income students from accessing and obtaining college degrees. It notes that the next HEA reauthorization “should expand access, improve affordability, and promote completion for all students.”

equity, inclusion, workforce, higher ed