Degree Inflation Doesn’t Always Pay

In less than a year, Gail went from cashier to coder and she didn’t need a bachelor’s degree to do it. Here’s how:

My mom recommended LaunchCode after she heard about it on the radio. I applied to their program and passed the screening tests, which look for aptitude and problem-solving ability, not computer knowledge. In July 2016, I enrolled in LaunchCode’s LC101. Like all of their courses, it was free. When I finished 20-weeks later, Express Scripts hired me as an apprentice. After 90 days, my apprenticeship ended and I became a regular full-time employee.

Getting hired at Express Scripts allowed me to quit the supermarket; I love being at Express Scripts. I’m a problem solver, which is what a programmer does. I also was able to become a teaching assistant for LaunchCode. They pay me for my time, but I’m so grateful to LaunchCode, I would do it for free.

Gail’s non-traditional educational path is counter-cultural in the United States. The majority cultural norm in the U.S. has evolved such that job candidates are required to possess a four-year college degree. That’s how degree inflation happened.

This tendency to honor formal education over alternative paths can hinder corporations’ opportunities to connect with, hire and retain unique talent. Cultural awareness includes the ability to shift cultural perspective, understanding that degree inflation is not only limiting business innovation and productivity but also the ability for company employees to relate to consumers, clients who also have non-traditional career paths. The research shows that when the employees reflect the end-user, there is 153% more likelihood to understand that market (HBR, 2013).

The Problem with Degree Inflation

Part of the problem with degree inflation is that not all jobs require or benefit from a bachelor’s degree. According to a Burning Glass Report (2014), employers are often seeking a bachelor’s degree for jobs that formerly required less education, even when the actual skills required haven’t changed, or when it makes the position harder to fill.

Because the preference for a bachelor’s degree has increased, employers often rely on a B.A. as a broad recruitment filter that doesn’t always correspond to specific skills needed to do the job. This makes it harder for companies to find and retain affordable talent. The Dismissed by Degrees report (Fuller, J., Raman, M., et al., Oct 2017) asserts that employers often pay 11-30% more for college graduates to do jobs also filled by non-degree holders without getting any material improvement in productivity. They’ve also discovered that non-graduates with experience perform nearly or equally well in critical areas; such as, the time it takes to reach full productivity, time to promotion, and amount of oversight required. Moreover, college graduates demonstrate higher turnover rates and lower engagement levels.

One Solution

Not only does degree inflation hurt companies, it can also hurt potential candidates. “There is a misperception out there that in order to find career success, you need a four-year degree,” said Haley Shoaf of LaunchCode. “But, because a four-year degree can be cost, time and situation prohibitive for some people, a college degree does not necessarily correlate to success.” St. Louis-based LaunchCode offers a non-traditional path to career success.

LaunchCode is an innovative non-profit organization providing opportunities to enter the field of technology by providing free tech education and apprenticeship job placements. Founded in 2013, over 4000 people have boosted their tech skills and over 1100 careers have been launched. Haley explained, “If both a job candidate and employer are willing to think outside the norm, a person with a high school degree and a LaunchCode 20-week course can be ready in six months for a 90-day job apprenticeship.” And 80% of all LaunchCode apprentices are hired on as full-fledged employees.

LaunchCode is one of the solutions to our growing technology gap. The Department of Labor reports that by 2020, there will be 1 million unfulfilled technology jobs in the U.S. Web developers, along with nuclear power reactor operators, transportation inspectors, and aerospace engineering and operations technicians, are on Business Insider’s list of 27 highest-paying jobs that don’t require a four-year degree. These jobs have a median annual salary of at least $60,000.

What a Leader Can Do?

To address the skills gap in your organization and reverse degree inflation, the Forbes report recommends that business leaders can:

  1. Identify which occupations are prone to degree inflation
  2. Explore alternative paths for job-training
  3. Identify the specific hard and soft skills required for critical jobs, and develop in-house or external training programs, apprenticeships, and internships to impart those skills.
  4. Evaluate the hidden costs of hiring degreed workers versus non-degreed workers.
  5. Invest in strategies that help the company attract and retain workers with the right competencies rather than credentials alone.
  6. Seek partners in the community, such as community colleges or nonprofits like LaunchCode to build talent pipelines and attract non-traditional candidates, who are eager to learn and prove themselves.

Traditional education is not the only path to a successful career. Companies that are willing to shift cultural perspective and adapt their behavior outside the norm can discover an abundance of qualified candidates with non-traditional educational backgrounds. Companies that do, experience lower rates of attrition, equivalent levels of productivity and reports of higher job satisfaction. And those same companies know the added value of having employees who relate to consumers with similar backgrounds, further increasing opportunity for a broader market reach and more profitability.

For Gail, the practical training she received came with a bonus. LaunchCode has an agreement with St. Louis Community College. By completing LC101, Gail earned 12 credit hours toward her Associate’s degree in Software Development.  -Amy S. Narishkin, PhD

To recruit and retain top talent from diverse backgrounds, leaders need to create a culture of safety and belonging for everyone. With a PhD in Adult Education, Amy works with CEO’s, management teams and those who take the lead in organizations to effectively implement the tools for intercultural competence. Learn the tools in our 6-session Workshop Series. To increase workplace productivity, innovation and profit, contact Amy.