Hurdling Hiring Bias: Are You Too Hung Up on the Degree?

As humans, we are inherently biased. This may make many of you cringe. You want to believe you are fair and impartial. You work hard to create an inclusive work environment, and you think more and more about how bias appears in regards to race, ethnicity, and religion. And yet, I regularly find companies tightly holding onto a hidden hiring bias: level of education.
Do you include “Bachelor’s Degree in [insert field of study]” as a requirement for your company’s jobs? If you do and you aren’t hiring for a specialized position, like a doctor or lawyer, for which extensive training and study is necessary, you just might be too hung up on the degree.
A recent CareerBuilder study found that 41 percent of employers hire college-educated workers for positions that had been primarily held by those with high school degrees, compared to 37 percent in 2016. Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that when those who did elevate their level of education requirements were asked if they’d seen a positive effect on productivity, communication, etc., the majority reported NOT seeing an improvement.

For many less specialized positions, requiring a degree may be costing you the best, most creative people in the market.
Think about your entry-level positions. Do college graduates outperform non-graduates? Not always. I find that some of the most motivated, creative, and skilled candidates do not have a college degree. It’s heartbreaking for them when I must tell them a degree is required to do work for which they are already highly skilled and performing successfully. On the other hand, I have found college graduates who are completely unprepared for the realities of doing a job they spent four years (or more) preparing for—incurring a mountain of debt in the process.
A degree does not necessarily equate to better job preparedness. In fact, it may mean you will have to spend more time on employee training and development. Recently, I worked with a small business that needed an entry-level marketing associate. The client insisted on considering only candidates with a degree. The problem was most candidates with a degree lacked hands-on, real world exposure to the marketing tools and technology used in this business.
The most skilled candidates had experience using sales pages, email marketing programs, and other tools for successful marketing campaigns. Many of these candidates were self-taught. They are doing work they love and for which they are passionate. They made connections with thought-leaders and people who were already successful. If they needed to learn something, they had instant access to education via YouTube videos, online communities filled with experts ready to share their knowledge, and free courses from Coursera, Khan Academy, and more.
The client held firm to their degree requirement and rejected any candidate I presented who did not possess a bachelor’s degree. The client felt that a degree demonstrated a commitment to learning and refused to consider that learning could occur outside of the traditional college path. In the end, the search took several weeks longer and, while the client found a candidate with both a bachelor’s and master’s degree who met their needs, there were candidates not considered who may have performed equally as well or perhaps better than the candidate hired.
The value of trying new things and learning and developing skills by seeking knowledge is an active, experiential process. This immersion in real world application of knowledge creates a level of skill that often cannot be gained by attending college, and if you’re hiring for a small business, a candidate who has the ability to proactively seek out new skills and learn new technologies is vital. College tends to be a more passive experience. Courses are created by academics who may be behind the curve when it comes to the latest trends and tools. The world is moving at warp speed, and formal education frequently plays catch up.
A college degree is one way to prepare for a career. However, the best candidate may be one who lacks a degree but has the exact mix of skill, knowledge, and experience required to successfully do the job.
Think about it. Are you too hung up on a degree? Once you hurdle the hiring bias, your candidate pool widens and you can access some of the most highly skilled, talented people available today.