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Do You Really Need a College Degree for That Entry-Level Job?

Once a position has been ‘up-credentialed,’ it's hard for HR departments to relax their hiring criteria.
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Illustration: alashi/Getty Images

When the job market was flooded with desperate applicants, many employers required college degrees for entry-level jobs. There was a certain cruel logic to it: Hey, might as well get the best.

The job market is much tighter now, but it appears that employers haven't relaxed their hiring criteria. That could explain why 43 percent say finding enough candidates is a top challenge in filling entry-level jobs. It's a classic example of shooting yourself in the foot, but of course it's also bad for the young people without college degrees who can't get onto the bottom rung of the career ladder.

Psychology, and office politics, may be at work here. No human resources person wants to be seen lowering hiring standards. "The past couple of decades there was a pretty significant trend toward up-credentialing," says Abigail Carlton, a managing director at the Rockefeller Foundation. "There’s a certain amount of path dependency once you start to put new requirements in. It would be harder to take them out than to put them in."

The foundation released a survey today that sheds light on the damage that can be done by insisting on college diplomas for jobs that don't really require them. It interviewed a thousand young people, half recent college graduates and half "opportunity youth"—unemployed high school graduates. It also interviewed some HR types and C-suite executives.