Skills Versus Degrees: The Administration Got This One Right

By Dr. Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scientist, Educational Policy Institute

On Friday, President Trump signed an executive order that would allow the federal government to hire by merit rather than by degree. “Degree-based hiring is especially likely to exclude qualified candidates for jobs related to emerging technologies and those with weak connections between educational attainment and the skills or competencies required to perform them. Moreover, unnecessary obstacles to opportunity disproportionately burden low-income Americans and decrease economic mobility.”

The Trump Administration is right. Degrees from accredited institutions have become the de facto means of applying for a position for hire in America and many other western countries. But, as I’ve argued before, what does a degree tell us? To have this argument, one must first acknowledge that certain professional fields, such as medicine and lawyering, to name only two, use a bachelor’s degree as the foundation for graduate work that specializes. The degree matters much more in those fields.

While we value the worth of a solid liberal arts degree, the play between that degree and a particular job opening depends on the skillsets involved, not just the degree. I envision two liberal arts candidates; each has a degree from a different institution. And although I understand that each candidate completed 120 or more credit hours, I don’t know much more about them. I may know that they volunteered and conducted community service. However, I am weighing their ability to meet my particular needs almost universally by the name of their respective institution. I do not know what courses they took. I may know their GPA, but that is not always of great value. I do not know what projects they conducted, if any. I am unaware what their study focus was, per se. The only way I know more about each person is if I bother to ask for a writing samples or portfolio of their work. For large employers, this becomes difficult if not impossible. It is one thing for a small company to take the time to sort through resumes and find “the one.” It is another for a company that hires 5,000 people a year to have the same ability. In 2015, UnitedHealthCare Group hired 43,588 people. That same year UPS hired 26,279. For this reason, these companies use filter technologies which focus largely on the bachelor’s degree. If you happen to have a BA, you immediately, regardless of anything else on that resume, push out someone with an AA or less.

As an employer, those groups have zero insight into your motivation, skillsets, or experience. But you have a BA.

This is what the Trump Administration got right in Friday’s executive order. Some people have very specific skills (no, not Liam Neeson) that are not caught well electronically through a scanner or digital input. What the Administration got wrong was this: “America’s private employers have modernized their recruitment practices to better identify and secure talent through skills- and competency-based hiring.” I don’t think they have. The resume input that Monster, Indeed, and other companies do focus uniquely on degrees rather than skillsets. While this may be the Administration’s assumption of reality, it doesn’t hold true in the workforce.

This isn’t a diatribe on the history of higher education, but one must understand that a liberal arts degree a century and more ago was the foundation for building intellect and providing thinking leaders for society writ large. The early immigrants to this nation saw the need for this “higher education.” Of course, the system was predicated on exclusivity based on legacy, power, and money. To undo the exclusivity of higher education, our governments created legislation to broaden access. The Morrill Acts I and II; The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (The GI Bill); The Basic Educational Opportunity Act of 1972 (the Pell Grant); and many other programs that have worked to open up the doors of opportunity. Even this has come at a cost.

In doing so, we have arguably created a glut of people with bachelor’s degrees. We have too many underemployed people who have an earned BA. More cruelly, we have millions of people with student debt who didn’t finish their BA, but thought that they, too, could take a hold of the brass ring offered by a higher education, because that is society’s mantra: a higher education is the only pathway to a good job and stable life. For too many students, the dream didn’t take hold. Their debt collectors don’t really keep track on these issues. Today’s banks and credit card companies are yesterday’s loan sharks. They just want their 19.96 percent interest.

This is why certificates and stackable credentials are so important for a future workforce. Passage of a credential tells an employer exactly what they can do, and perhaps what they can’t. When a faculty begins to talk and negotiate about updating their curriculum and programming, they should be talking about the skills they are helping students generate and how they can make those more concrete rather than implied.

At a time when higher education is going through perhaps the toughest time in their existence, they should consider what they offer with regard to value added for our youth and our workforce. Just focusing on the degree doesn’t make sense. It never has.

2 thoughts on “Skills Versus Degrees: The Administration Got This One Right

  1. Thanks for this, Scott. I have seen an increase in certification programs offered from colleges and universities, as well a prof-dev courses without certifications (they can offer non-certificate coursework at a lower price point and expand the audience when there is no grading or evaluation of student learning). I feel the bridge between culture of academia and the culture of business still has a lot of growing to do.

    1. Thanks Anna. There has always been a vast chasm between the two, even when the leaders of both suggest there isn’t. There is.

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