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An end run around a college degree

University tuition and student debt skyrocketed as higher education became a prerequisite for more and more jobs. Now new kinds of credentialing programs are giving big employers a chance to end the madness.

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About a year ago, when I was leading Harvard Business Publishing, we had a big problem: Demand for our offering was outstripping our capacity to supply it. We, along with many other companies, needed talented people from around the world and lots of them, as fast as possible. But turning on the hiring spigot is never that easy. That’s when members of my team started posing a question: “What if we did away with the college degree as a requirement for employment?”

The fact that we have Harvard in our name certainly added to the irony, but we were far from the only employer considering the idea. Many companies, faced with a tight labor market and the push for diversity, have been flirting with dropping the college requirement. The next question they ask usually is: If we aren’t requiring college, then what are we requiring? Higher ed has long been a sorting machine for employers seeking talented young people to fill their ranks. Just scan a random assortment of job descriptions at companies like Disney and Starbucks (as I have) and you’ll see that most high-paying roles require a college degree — or even a specialized master’s or MBA.

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And therein lies the trouble. Around 70 percent of new job postings require a college degree, yet only about 40 percent of US workers have graduated from college. “I really don’t like the phrase ‘requires a college degree,’” says Byron Auguste, CEO and cofounder of Opportunity@Work, a nonprofit that is attempting to create a marketplace for alternatives to college degrees. The organization refers to them as Skilled Through Alternative Routes (STARs). “With some obvious exceptions, most jobs don’t require a B.A. Unfortunately, it’s become a screening mechanism that excludes too many from attaining higher-paying wages.”

Auguste is part of a burgeoning army of investors, entrepreneurs, and employers who are developing an ecosystem of boot camps, apprenticeships, and online programs meant to retool the labor market and expand access to it to a larger number of workers.

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Another member of this army is Fernando Rodriguez-Villa, who offers a clear picture of how the future workforce could be trained for high-wage jobs without going to college. Rodriguez-Villa is a cofounder and the CEO of Boston-based AdeptID, an early-stage tech company with 20 people and $5 million in funding. It is developing a software engine to evaluate an individual’s skills and recommend the right career moves to maximize their potential.

His machine-learning model is fueled by data from employers who have partnered with the company to share anonymized information about real-world career transitions. This data is enriched by data from public sources, such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and aggregators of job profiles, such as Lightcast.

The whole idea is to make the machine smarter at matching a person’s work background with a potential career path — and the results are often unexpected. For example, AdeptID’s matching engine might determine that a supermarket cashier without a college degree is suited for a much higher-paying job as, say, a pharmaceutical technician. “The college degree is a convenient proxy because it filters the number of job applicants down to a manageable number for employers, but that filtering typically reflects privilege rather than potential, or even relevance,” says Rodriguez-Villa. “Our software provides a different kind of proxy, one based on transferable skills and potential, and it can work at scale.”

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AdeptID cofounders Brian DeAngelis and Fernando Rodriguez-Villa.AdeptID

These new pathways are opening as higher education finds itself in the grips of an existential crisis. With tuition and fees for public and private universities ballooning — along with student debt — educators at the nation’s top schools have been asking hard questions about their role in society and whether they should be doing more to lift all boats. The current Supreme Court case challenging affirmative action at Harvard and the University of North Carolina, which will determine whether and how schools can consider race as part of the admissions process, could make reducing inequity even tougher to achieve. “Selective higher education is disproportionately accessed by the wealthiest among us,” says Auguste. “Equity in college education has not been moving in the right direction, and there’s little evidence that this will change significantly.”

So, what could make a significant change? Rather than expecting higher education to reform itself or looking to the government to fix things with policy, what if employers were to reduce their demand for formal degrees?

Creating the workforce of the future

While it’s great to identify broader career paths for a wider range of workers, hiring is still a risky proposition for any company. To ensure success and retain the best people, employers must also train and support their new hires.

That’s where companies like Multiverse enter the picture. Started in 2016 by Euan Blair, an investment banker turned entrepreneur, Multiverse works with giant employers including Microsoft, Verizon, and Morgan Stanley to provide them with apprentices who lack college degrees. These apprentices join the company as full-time paid employees and receive personalized coaching to ensure that they acquire valuable skills. Blair’s company has trained 9,000 people in such apprenticeships globally.

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Blair predicated his company on the idea that college is not for everyone. There’s a tinge of irony here, given that his father, former UK prime minister Tony Blair, worked hard to widen the scope of who could attend college. But Euan Blair, who attended Yale and Bristol University in the UK, believes that, in many ways, higher education fails in its core mission. “It’s not just that the best degrees are distributed unequally, favoring those from the most affluent backgrounds; it’s that they are a poor proxy for success in the workplace,” says Blair. “The innate advantage of an apprenticeship is that the skills acquired are directly relevant to a career.”

Euan Blair, founder of Multiverse.AFP/AFP via Getty Images

According to the US Department of Labor, about 214,000 people ages 16 to 24 were in apprenticeships in 2022, more than double the number a decade ago. That helps to explain why Blair’s company was recently valued at more than $1.7 billion.

Multiverse is similar to OneTen, which was launched in the wake of the George Floyd murder, in May 2020. The organization, founded by a few top executives including Ken Frazier, who was then the CEO of Merck Pharmaceuticals, and Ginni Rometty, then the CEO of IBM, promises to place 1 million Black people in corporate roles in the next decade (hence the name OneTen) — and a college degree is not a requirement. “As CEO, I learned how employers can find new sources of talent when they hire for skills over degrees,” says Rometty. At OneTen, she wants to “share that operational knowledge with dozens of companies so skills-first hiring can scale.”

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Ken Frazier (left), the Merck chief executive, and Ginni Rometty, the chief executive of IBM. (Samuel Corum, Mike Cohen/New York Times)Samuel Corum, Mike Cohen/New York Times

Employer awakening

All these efforts require a reframing of what job recruiting entails for employers. At Coca-Cola, which is exploring ways to drop a college degree as a requirement for employment, chief people officer Lisa Chang says, “We have a broader social responsibility to develop talent for our world and not just our company.”

A similar mindset is taking hold at Starbucks. “Just as we need to shift to think about renewable fuels, we need to think about renewable talent,” says Frank Britt, who is responsible for human resources as Starbucks’s chief of strategy and innovation. “Or put another way, we want to move from talent-takers to talent-makers, if we are going to get people ready for their next best job.”

Google has launched an ambitious effort to boost people without college degrees. The company began offering Google Career Certificates nearly five years ago. The curriculum is taught by Google experts and was developed in concert with a consortium of more than 150 companies as varied as Crate & Barrel, Salesforce, and DataDog, which then recruit from the pool of people who have earned the certificates. The concept is the brainchild of Lisa Gevelber, Google’s chief marketing officer for the Americas, and is part of a wider effort called Grow with Google. It began as an attempt to diversify Google’s IT support ranks, but the company has expanded the program into such fields as e-commerce, data analytics, and user experience.

The certificates take three to six months to complete for the typical student putting in five to 10 hours per week. Students pay $39 per month — not much compared with tuition for a four-year degree — and a pool of employers are already waiting to look at their resumes. Google says that nearly 40 percent of its learners are in the lowest income stratum — making less than $30,000 per year — and they graduate into a field of job offerings with a median salary of $66,000.

Universities such as Columbia, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Michigan are participating too. They offer “industry specializations” to complement Google’s programs. For example, Columbia’s school of engineering has developed a construction management industry specialization, which is available to students in Google’s project management program. Johns Hopkins has done something similar for people who want to do IT support in the health care industry. “Google was able to show us that these offerings opened us up to learners who don’t typically navigate their way to the University of Michigan,” says James DeVaney, the university’s associate vice provost for academic innovation.

Gevelber is beginning to spread the word about these programs to high school students who can start work on their certificates while earning their secondary school degree.

To be sure, many will still argue that there is no substitute for college — and that higher education is about much more than picking up job skills. Until recently, college enrollment had been growing in response to a deep-seated belief that, in spite of the cost, it was the best way into the upper middle class. Making college more accessible for more people is a good thing for sure, but viable alternative paths have the potential to positively affect many more lives.

I think we were right at Harvard Business Publishing to question whether we had to demand a college degree in every job posting. Today that requirement is not included in many of the company’s postings. But this is just the start of the journey. Companies now have a chance to reimagine how to find and develop talent so that they fling open the doors of opportunity to those who’ve been left out in the cold for far too long.

Joshua Macht, former acting CEO of Harvard Business Publishing, is a strategic adviser to media and edtech companies.