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The state of Maryland recently announced that it would no longer require a bachelor’s degree in the hiring process for nearly half of its jobs, joining a growing number of companies and other employers.

A recent episode of The Key, Inside Higher Ed’s news and analysis podcast, explored Maryland’s decision to look beyond the four-year degree and the implications for higher education. Bridgette Gray, chief customer officer at the nonprofit group Opportunity@Work, which is helping Maryland identify nondegreed workers to fill jobs in technology, administration and customer service, describes the market conditions that prompted the state’s decision and why equity was a primary factor behind its move.

Brandon Busteed, chief partnership officer and global head of learn-work innovation at Kaplan, discusses the larger forces at play and explains how colleges and universities can respond in ways that not only sustain their relevance but position them better for the coming changes and how learning is likely to happen.

An edited transcript of the podcast conversation follows.

Inside Higher Ed: Could you briefly outline the new policy Maryland has put in place to eliminate the bachelor’s degree as a requirement for thousands of the state’s jobs?

Gray: As we think about the pandemic and the recovery from the pandemic, Maryland has made the decision to remove degree requirements from thousands of jobs that it has determined no longer need a four-year bachelor’s degree. They were having trouble filling their talent pipelines and the thought was, let’s just remove degree requirements from jobs that we feel like don’t necessarily need them. They’re partnering with Opportunity@Work to help source that talent.

Inside Higher Ed: What’s your sense of what had led those jobs to have degree requirements in the first place? Had that just naturally happened over time? Can you tell a bit more about the process the state went through to determine which jobs continue to require a bachelor’s degree and which ones didn’t?

Gray: When you start to think about degree inflation, we can actually point back to the Great Recession in 2008. There was this huge increase in using a bachelor’s degree as a tool to screen out workers as employers were struggling to balance the number of applicants they saw. You had degrees being used as a proxy to determine skills in the mind of hiring managers. Seventy-four percent of new jobs between 2008 and 2017 were in occupations that required a bachelor’s degree, but 60 percent of the adult workforce doesn’t have a degree.

Maryland found itself now in the same space where degree inflation is happening. Tons of people are applying for jobs, and people are being very intentional about the jobs they are open to. Maryland just took a step backwards and thought, “We are not filling jobs fast enough and we have open roles. So, we need to take a look at where is a postsecondary degree needed. Think in terms of roles of end-user support roles in tech. It’s an entry-level role. It doesn’t need a bachelor’s degree, but you may need a credential.”

What we did was work with Maryland to really think through their customer-facing roles, administrative roles, IT jobs, and opening up those opportunities for what we call STARs. Those are workers that are skilled to an alternative route. They have training, they have skills to do the job today, but they don’t have the access and opportunity because the position descriptions are already weeding them out because they don’t have a four-year degree.

Inside Higher Ed: Can you say a little more about Opportunity@Work and the STARs program?

Gray: Opportunity@Work is a social enterprise. Our mission is to increase career opportunities for the 70 million adults [without a degree] that are out here. STARs are workers that are skilled through an alternative route. They gain their skills through many years of work experience, through a community college or a military service program or even through a workforce training organization. These people make up the bulk of American workers. Maryland decided to partner with us because we have this focus on skills-based talent and we help them figure out which jobs necessarily don’t need a postsecondary degree. We also have a platform called StellarWorx. It’s a one-stop shop for employers to be able to support STARs talent.

Inside Higher Ed: Is there a certification process for somebody to be considered a STAR? Is it something that Opportunity@Work determines, or can it be self-determined?

Gray: All of the organizations I’ve mentioned before, whether it’s a community college or someone that’s training talent, create a profile on our StellarWorx platform and upload their curricula. There is an algorithm built into our system that pulls out the skills people would learn based off of that curriculum. Then the skills algorithm is matched up with what employers are actually putting on the platform as far as roles they want to fill. There’s a skills matching and a number that shows what the match score looks like.

Inside Higher Ed: It sounds like the decision to reconsider degree requirements is heavily driven by a lack of available workers, just like the degree requirements were originally imposed because of employers’ desire to differentiate among what they viewed as too many potential workers 15 years ago. Is that accurate?

Gray: That is what prompted the conversation. If you’re not able to fill your talent pipelines and you’re leaving positions open that are critical to the state, you stop for a second to think about what are we not doing accurately? But the conversation quickly morphed to equity. The state of Maryland wanted to create an equitable process where more Marylanders can see themselves in opportunities to move themselves into the middle class. So, the impetus was, yes, we can’t meet the demand, but we can also be very equitable in how we think about approaching these jobs.

Inside Higher Ed: Some of the people who advocate for ending degree requirements also question whether going to college is worth it—often with a political bent. So a lot of people in higher education may view efforts to eliminate degree requirements as a political statement or an attempt to diminish the importance of colleges and universities. Do you separate the decisions to limit the preference for degrees in hiring from the public questioning of the value of a degree? What’s the interaction here?

Gray: That is a good question and one that we as a country need to have a deeper conversation around. Opportunity@Work’s stance is not “it’s college or it’s not.” I don’t think this is a political move at all. We can’t continue to have just one pathway for people to be able to have upward economic mobility and family-sustaining wages. We just can’t. I think back to the time when my grandparents and other people’s grandparents and parents went through vocational training or went through an apprenticeship model. There wasn’t this degree inflation. There was a space where there is good, hard work you do that pays really well if you just get vocational training. We’ve gotten away from that, and we flipped it. When the bulk of people in this country can’t afford college, what happens to them?

The other thing is I would say is college still is super important. You have to have a degree if you want to be a doctor or an attorney or an engineer. But do you need a degree to code? No. You need curiosity. And you need to be a lifelong learner when you’re working in tech.

Inside Higher Ed: Roughly half of Maryland state jobs were deemed not to require a bachelor’s degree. How was that analysis done?

Gray: The first place we always go to typically is tech, IT. My background is from a tech developer world for the past 25 years. The employers that I worked with will tell you they don’t need someone to come into their companies with a degree in tech. When you have the industry telling you that this particular role may not need a degree, that’s what arms us to be able to have those conversations with folks like the state of Maryland. It’s thinking through your jobs and figuring out which of those jobs could you start to focus on.

Inside Higher Ed: How typical or how unusual is Maryland in taking this step? We’ve seen more companies start to do this, both companies like Google and others that are offering their own credentials and certificates, but also employers that are asking some of the same questions Maryland is. Are there multiple other conversations that you’re aware of? Do you think it will not be the last if it’s the first?

Gray: Maryland is definitely a trendsetter. They are leading the way, and I know that Maryland has had tons of calls, asking questions like, how did you do that? We’ve also had states calling us saying that they too want to figure out how to remove degree requirements from jobs that … don’t necessarily need those. We’ve had this also happen, trickle down to county government as well as city government jobs.

Interview with Brandon Busteed

Inside Higher Ed: Can you help us put Maryland’s decision into some national context and tell us whether you think that’s significant? And if so, why?

Busteed: It’s another big announcement in a series of news stories that are trending in this direction. There’s still a lot of value for the bachelor’s degree and belief in college. But this is now a whole state that has come out and said, “Hey, we’ve looked at this carefully and we’re not so sure that we need to require a degree for these jobs.” And in reality, if employers really dig beneath the surface of what is required in terms of tasks and skills, the honest answer is that a lot of jobs don’t actually require a bachelor’s degree like we believe they do.

Google, in announcing their Google IT certificate last year, came out and said we are going to treat these as equivalent to a college degree in our hiring process. Financial services firms and major accounting firms have come out and said, “We’re going to take it under consideration, but the degree is no longer going to be a requirement.” And it’s against this backdrop of concerns about the work readiness of college graduates and questions about the cost of higher ed. Which gets you into a zone of this debate about the return on investment. Is it worth it? Is it worth it for everybody?

Inside Higher Ed: More and more jobs in the economy had come to require a bachelor’s degree. Why?

Busteed: Historically, I think that the bachelor’s degree, or degrees in general, have been considered a standard for career trajectory and career success. The idea being that if you really want to get ahead or be a manager or be in a senior-level role, college is your path. And we do have data that substantiates those who get a bachelor’s degree, over those with only a high school degree, make significantly more over their career. That data still holds up. It’s two competing thoughts that you have to hold in your head at the same time. There’s plenty of analysis that says a large percentage of the jobs of today in the future are going to require a college degree. And the other hand, you’re hearing a drumbeat around, does this one really require a college degree? Maybe it’s still valuable, but it’s optional.

There are two major headwinds facing higher education: the perception and reality of rising costs of higher ed alongside this belief among the general population, business executives, hiring managers that college graduates aren’t really well prepared for work. The bigger backdrop is that degree-seeking enrollments in U.S. higher ed have now declined for 13 straight years. We’ve shed in real terms 3.72 million students since 2011. There’s a real story here that people are turning to other alternatives or nothing. I do believe there are a growing set of college pathway alternatives and noncollege pathway alternatives to good jobs.

Inside Higher Ed: Start with the question of whether college graduates are or are not prepared for the workforce. I’ve heard less from employers about that than I did a few years ago. How true is it and how do we know?

Busteed: This is going to sound simplistic to start, but perception is reality to a certain extent. Some of this comes from my time at Gallup: extensive surveys of different segments of the population, general population, C-level business, even trustees of colleges and universities, can be skeptical of … the work readiness of college graduates. What’s really under the hood? One, relatively few students have had real work experience. This is a generational thing. Today’s 18- to 25-year-olds are the least working generation in U.S. history—have you worked an hour or more in a paid job in the last week? The lowest we’ve ever measured in 60, 70 years. You can say they’re not work ready because they’re not working as much as any generation before, and how is that the fault or the blame of a college or university? I think they have a role, but there’s other stuff going on there.

Then you look at the things that are in the curriculum, in the control of a provost or a dean or an individual faculty member. Only a third of graduates leave higher ed having done a long-term project that took a semester or more to complete. And only about a third had a job or an internship of some form where they were able to apply what they were learning in the classroom.

Inside Higher Ed: We know that people with degrees still outperform on pay and other things—four-year degree outperforms a two-year degree, two-year degree outperforms a high school diploma. Those who believe that having a degree still pays off aren’t wrong. How do we mesh those two thoughts?

Busteed: If you just take the averages, those are truths. But it’s the nuances where the stories and the concern and the risk really get amplified. Forty years ago, graduates were coming out of higher ed with very little student loan debt relative to today. The stakes are higher because the cost for many has gone up. The impact of student loan debt is very real. You hear stories about people graduating from medical school and going into community health practices as a family physician with $400,000 of student loan debt. You say, a doctor makes a lot of money. But community health, family physician probably doesn’t earn enough to carry the burden of a $400,000 debt. There are graduates who graduate with an English degree from one institution in the state of Texas who make a lot less than English majors from another institution in the state. That’s the concern—are there enough stories of where I got my degree and it didn’t really work out the way I thought? That’s a real concern.

Inside Higher Ed: Some people who advocate stances like Maryland’s do so because they question the value of a bachelor’s degree. Increasingly so, in our ever more partisan society, with a political motivation. There’s no question that a lot of people in higher education view initiatives like in Maryland as a real critique. Has it become a political hammer in certain ways?

Busteed: The whole topic of higher education has become partisan. I don’t think it’s a temporary issue. I think it’s going to be a painful, lasting issue. When it comes to jobs, I don’t believe that it’s either-or. It’s either college or something else. I also don’t believe that it’s like the liberal arts vs. careerism or technical training. The future is very much about the both-and. A lot of people talk about building a T-shaped student—someone who is broadly educated and specifically skilled. Even if you have a student who is in a classic liberal arts program who’s getting broadly educated in the most robust sense, I still want to see that student leave with specific skill sets, whether they’re proficient in Excel or Tableau or they have a designation in cybersecurity. That’s the conversation we should have. What are the elements of “traditional college” that we really do want to protect and value? Even through a partisan divide, there are some commonalities that we can all really grab onto.

Inside Higher Ed: We’ve got Maryland doing this, and various employers are changing their requirements. We’ve got all these alternative pathways that the digital explosion and technology have enabled. In that environment, what is the college administrator, faculty member or institutional leader to do? What are the appropriate responses for institutions that want to remain relevant and serve their students in this way?

Busteed: If you and your institution believe that your only purview is that of the domain of a degree, you’re probably going to be persisting in a declining market. I mentioned 13 years of declining enrollments in degree-seeking programs. What’s growing for college and universities are enrollments in nondegree educational programs. There’s a whole litany of things: certificate level, boot camp–related stuff. Many institutions are diving into that in response to what students need and what employers are pushing for. We can embrace that, and we can do it in a smart way.

If I’m a higher ed leader, and we’re going to take either pieces of the degree and make it available, or we’re going to create certificate or boot camp programs, how can we then ensure that the design of those articulate into credit toward degrees? I might not be able to hook somebody into coming full steam into a degree program. But if they take a boot camp and then a follow-up certificate in pursuit of a more immediate job, and then they realize, I’ve already got 10 or 12 credits toward an associate degree, a bachelor’s degree, that is a bit of the tractor beam that draws people into higher ed.

The embrace of this can mean growth in alternative revenue sources and growth in mission impact. If I want to be in service to society and the world and all these grandiose powerful statements that colleges make in their mission statements, it doesn’t always have to be just through the lens of a degree. There’s a lot of powerful education that colleges can provide short of that. And I think if we break outside of that degree mind-set, I think we actually improve the value of a degree in doing so.

Inside Higher Ed: There are quite a few people out there kind of short selling the degree, suggesting that it will be replaced or significantly diminished by this collection of alternative credentials or by people choosing “none of the above.” Do you think that’s where we’re heading?

Busteed: I do think the degree is losing currency. But it doesn’t mean that colleges and universities need to suffer the same fate. Colleges and universities can and will maintain a very important pole position in the grand scheme of human development. But for those that are wedded to the degree, that’s going to be a real challenge. You’re going to be competing for a smaller and smaller number of students.

But college and universities can remain as relevant as ever before. The reality of the future of learning and work is that most of us are going to be in a position where we’re going to have to be constantly learning new tools, new software. The idea that I just learn everything I need to learn in this intense period of four years, that hasn’t been true for forever. If we get outside of that idea, I think there’s a lot of relevance to colleges and universities.

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