Two women working, looking at a brochure inside a cloth store

Should Nonprofits Ditch College Degree Requirements in Job Descriptions?

In 2017, researchers from Harvard Business School, Accenture, and Grads of Life published research into what they called degree inflation—the phenomenon of organizations seeking candidates with a four-year degree for roles that didn’t previously require them. This practice, they found, made it more difficult and expensive for organizations to fill these roles, and led to increased turnover. 

At a time when labor shortages are leaving many organizations in the nonprofit sector and beyond struggling to attract the talent they need, unnecessary requirements in your job descriptions could be holding back your hiring efforts. They may also hurt your diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives since degree inflation has a disparate impact on underrepresented groups. 

Here are a few steps you can take to assess whether the roles you’re hiring for really require a college degree. 

1. Compare old job descriptions to recent ones

Middle-skill jobs tend to be most at risk of degree inflation. This includes roles like supervisor, support specialist, and sales representative where many people who currently hold the position don’t have a college degree, yet most job descriptions now ask for one.

Auditing your job descriptions can help you spot roles where degree inflation is starting to creep in. If your organization has been around for a while, it’s worth trying to dig up old job descriptions for the same roles to see how the requirements have evolved. Did you ask for a degree five years ago? What about 10 years ago? And if not, has anything really changed in the intervening years to make a degree necessary?

2. Speak to people who’ve held the role before

Often, when organizations audit their current job descriptions, they find that their top performers in the role today would not have been hired if that same description had been used when they applied. Highlighting this can be a good way to open people’s eyes to the risks of degree inflation, as it can create a barrier to entry for exceptional candidates with huge potential.

If you can, speak to some people who currently or previously held the role you’re hiring for. Find out what skills they came in with, and what they picked up along the way. This can help you shape a more realistic job description and craft a stronger professional development plan for your new hire.

3. Identify which skills could be trained on the job

In some cases, meeting certain educational requirements is absolutely essential for performing a job. You probably wouldn’t go under the knife if you found out your surgeon had never completed medical school. In many other jobs, however, college degrees have become proxies for the actual skills hiring manager are looking for. The assumption is that if a person holds a certain degree, they probably have the skills required to do the job well. This may be true—but it doesn’t account for the many skilled people without a formal degree who could perform the job just as well or better. By adding a degree requirement, you discourage them from even applying and run the risk of automatically screening them out even if they do.

Before posting a job, sit down with the hiring manager and get clear on all the skills they’re looking for. If they’re asking for a college degree, ask them to talk through how that degree will help the person on the job in terms of applied knowledge and skills. You may find that the skills and expertise required could be learned on the job, or that candidates could have picked them up in other ways. By breaking it down this way, you can encourage hiring managers to consider the possibilities of hiring someone without a degree, making them more amenable to the idea of removing the requirement altogether.

4. Assess the hidden costs of degree requirements

If leaders or hiring managers at your organization are still on the fence about removing degree requirements from your job descriptions for some positions, it may be helpful to show them just how much these requirements could cost your nonprofit. Typically, it costs a good deal more to hire someone with a college degree than someone without. 

But some of the costs are less obvious. The report from Harvard Business School, Accenture, and Grads of Life found that employees with a college degree have a significantly higher rate of voluntary turnover than nongraduates—39% compared to 21%. At the same time, hiring nongraduates can come with hidden benefits, like helping you find untapped talent and candidates who will be extremely loyal to your organization for helping them get their foot in the door.

To require or not to require

At the end of the day, every role is different, so the question of whether or not you should remove college degree requirements really depends on the specific responsibilities of the position. By following the steps above, you can evaluate this question carefully—and make a compelling case to your stakeholders. 

If your nonprofit is currently hiring, our Nonprofit Talent Solutions can help you find the right candidates faster. Contact our team to learn more. 

This post was inspired by the LinkedIn Talent Blog article “How Eliminating Degree Requirements Can Save You Time, Money, and Turnover,” authored by Laura Hilgers. 

Find exceptional nonprofit talent