Why you should take “college degree required” off your job descriptions
The year was 2009. I was 36 years old and applying for a job at Google.
The initial phone recruiter, after warning me that the process would take “two to three months” (and it took all of that), speedwalked through a regiment of screening questions. Everything seemed normal until:
“And what was your SAT score?”
Again, I had just turned 36. And Google was asking me about my performance on a test I’d taken when I was a child of 16. It stunned me for a moment. What did a test I took during my childhood have to do with this middle-management job in B2B marketing?
I eventually got the job. Later when I started hiring people at Google, I found myself navigating a recruiting philosophy that was starkly different from the ones I had encountered before. Google only hired the best people, and to Google that meant high achievement at elite employers and a handful of top universities.
In the early ’10s, I rarely heard the word “diversity” as a hiring objective at Google. Google saw its competitive advantage as hiring elite people, not diverse people. Whenever I tried to hire someone who went to a “second-tier” university or had worked their way up through a less-than-blue-chip prior employer, I often had to fight to get them through Google’s byzantine hiring committee system, even if they aced all their interviews.
As a result, we as marketers tried to understand our customers and users, but we really weren’t like most of them.
Google has since reformed how it recruits and selects people, although its diversity still resembles that of an elite American university without a strong affirmative action program.
Most of the senior managers at Bay Area tech companies, big and small, are still loaded with alums from a rather short list of universities. As someone who started his career “back east,” I can attest that the situation is even more acute over there.
And now we know about rampant criminal fraud in college admissions, in which dozens of wealthy parents bribed people to boost their kids’ scores and invent non-existent athletic careers, all in the name of getting their kids into selective universities.
This is different from the old-school game of money, family, and influence, where elite schools fill their ranks with the heirs of past alumni, and mom and dad can buy admission for the price of a new campus center.
But this new scandal raises a bigger question: Why was a sitcom actress or hedge fund manager willing to risk prison to get their kids into Georgetown or USC?
The reason is easily explained by this: What Google was doing in its first decade was just a codified version of something that employers have done forever, and people do every day. College affiliation is an easy and longstanding mental shortcut to judging someone’s intelligence, financial status, and social class. People who attend more selective and prominent universities get better jobs, make better connections, marry higher-status partners, and achieve higher social standing.
In fact, a landmark 2017 study across multiple American universities showed that kids from lower income quintiles were able to achieve post-college outcomes that were hardly different from the rich kids. But there just aren’t very many of them there.
And to put a shellac coating on the whole thing, American social classes have been sorting, hardening, and isolating themselves for decades. In 2019, any collection of people from highly selective universities will have almost no connection at all to the other 90%.
So if you’re trying to achieve diversity in your company or even just on your team, you need to think more creatively about your recruitment and selection process.
What you’re saying when you’re saying “college degree required”
Now, as a hiring manager, I can understand why you might prefer to hire a Stanford alum rather than a City College alum, or someone who never got a degree at all. All things being equal, someone who graduated in the middle of her class at an elite school is probably more likely to succeed at a challenging role than someone who graduated in the middle of a less selective school.
And it’s possible that the job you’ve opened actually does require a course of study, credentials, or certification. I’m not talking about those careers.
But when you’ve stated a requirement for a college degree for your open role, when the role itself doesn’t truly rely on that education, what you’re really saying is, “I discriminate based on your parents’ social class.”
Yes, now we know that Hollywood people and wealthy execs open doors for their unremarkable kids by literally paying cash to the gatekeepers. But more critically, across the board the strongest predictor of entrance and completion of a degree at a top-tier university isn’t merit, but family ability to pay. That advantage starts early, with access to strong primary education and stable parents who can help with homework. It extends into high school with access to college advisors, test prep, essay coaching, extracurricular experiences, mentorship, and financial aid. And then into college itself, with the financial ability to fund $120,000-$200,000 over four years through cash or debt, and the stability to worry about studies, not money.
In short, graduating from a university is a sign of family status, not personal achievement. Bachelor’s degree attainment is more than 5x higher among kids from higher-income households than lower-income households.
Enterprise Rent-A-Car is one of the largest employers of new college grads in the country. (I interviewed with them myself during my senior year.) A couple years ago, they took a small step towards changing the relationship between college and employment by no longer requiring a specific course of study, which makes sense because they train their new grads very thoroughly.
Enterprise believes that a college degree leads students to develop those elusive “soft skills,” coveted by so many employers today: creativity, empathy, the ability to communicate.
But setting up the bachelor’s degree as that hurdle to a job is problematic. First of all, there is no guarantee that college conveys those skills; it merely signals that applicants might have them.
Second, either intentionally or unintentionally, Enterprise and other employers may be using the college degree to filter their applicant pool by socioeconomic status. Sure, having a degree might signal that you’re tenacious, communicative, and so on, but given that people who are white and wealthy are more likely to graduate from a four-year institution, it also signals that you come from a certain tier in society.
Perhaps being swamped with elite college grads would be a nice problem for a hiring manager to have. But if you’re working at a company that’s already heavy with them, taking a leadership stance and telling your recruiting team, “You can take ‘college degree’ out of the requirements” is a simple step you can take towards achieving actual diversity.
I’ve done this at two large companies and two startups (but not Google). When I told the marketing recruiters this, they were stunned — and then deeply grateful.
Did I actually hire anyone who didn’t finish college? Just one person. Did I get much more diverse applicant pools? Yes, definitely.
Diversity matters. I’m not going to waste any words describing why it does. But you can’t get there by narrowing your funnel. You can only get there by showing that you’re open to all kinds of people.
When you drop the requirement for college, you’re encouraging more people to apply, even those who don’t fit the mold of everyone else.
Also when you drop the requirement for college, you’re communicating to alumni of elite institutions that they’re competing in a fairer space, where their family’s social status and resources aren’t major considerations in your selection process.
Of course, this isn’t enough. It’s only a step to widen the funnel. The harder part is evaluating people based on their ability to drive results, and that requires a company-wide culture of fairness. (One person in your interview panel who’s interviewing for “culture fit” can ruin the whole thing.)
Not everyone agrees with me. When I’ve run this idea by people I know and respect, I’ve heard, “People who finish college show they have the grit to accomplish something that’s challenging.” This is a legit point, especially when expressed by anyone who had to fight the social class odds themselves to get to college and finish. I also believe, however, that you can test for these personal attributes by probing career accomplishments and methods.
The more experienced they are, the less relevant their college performance is. Don’t ask a 36-year-old about their SAT score.
We can all be hypocrites, and that’s okay
I’m not one of these “college is a waste, just learn to code and start a company” bros. Both learning to code and starting a company are also paths with unequal access points. None of the famous college dropouts who became billionaires grew up in poverty. They’re mostly children of wealthy parents. This isn’t to meant to demean their accomplishments; it’s just to recognize that this path is also a meritocracy only among those who can afford their way in. (Imagine the risk tolerance of a young person who doesn’t have the resources to work for no salary, or the luxury of moving into dad’s pied a terre.)
But society will absolutely judge you based on your signifiers, so how you present those milestones really matter. (See my earlier post on how to fix your sucky resume.)
So my kids are going to college. I’m pretty sure they’ll want to. We’ve been saving money since they were born. Not enough, of course.
I hope they’ll go to a school that makes them happy, helps them find their tribes, and opens the doors to whatever fulfills them as people.
In the meantime, we who have already muscled our ways into the elite ranks of our pseudo-capitalist system have a responsibility to try to change the system. Because the current system isn’t serving society or our businesses terribly well.
And we can start with little steps that can help change our mindsets for the better.