A College Degree Isn't a Necessity. Are Employers Finally Listening? | Opinion

After a two-year pandemic-related halt, many Americans are urging President Joe Biden to completely eliminate student loan debt for federal borrowers before the pause extension expires this summer. In a letter to the president earlier this year, more than 80 Democratic lawmakers argued that "restarting student loan payments ... would be disastrous for millions of borrowers and their families."

However, some critics of loan forgiveness contend that wiping debts clean only exacerbates problems that already exist. Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers referred to the extension of the student loan moratorium as "highly problematic." Others said forgiveness doesn't address "the fact that some college degrees don't result in decent-paying jobs."

No matter what side of the debate you're on, one thing is clear—the ongoing student loan discussion and the soaring cost of four-year college degrees are causing many students to rethink the traditional high school to college trajectory altogether. Many are realizing that the conventional route simply isn't the only path to professional success, nor the most cost-effective. And if there's one silver lining to the pandemic, it's that employers are finally catching up to this realization, too.

A recent study by the Burning Glass Institute explained that our country's "degree inflation" is finally taking a backseat to wider opportunities. As the study noted, "jobs do not require four-year college degrees. Employers do." That is, until the pandemic put our nation's stubborn skills gap in high-definition focus.

Five years ago, an estimated 51 percent of online job postings listed a four-year degree as a requirement. In 2021, that number decreased to 44 percent, according to the study. Based on this continuing trend, our country could see an additional 1.4 million jobs "open to workers without college degrees over the next five years."

This is certainly positive news for millions of Americans—particularly those from underserved and underrepresented backgrounds—who've been relegated to the sidelines of opportunity. But to avoid repeating our past mistakes, it's vital that we remember that these recent employer-led epiphanies aren't born out of some sudden consensus on the value (or lack thereof) of a college degree. Rather, the changes we're seeing have been cautiously embraced out of sheer immediacy and the pulls of economic necessity.

As Vanessa Fuhrmans and Kathryn Dill of The Wall Street Journal pointed out, "companies have struggled to hire all the talent they need, so many have dropped prequalifications like prior work experience or a four-year college degree." In doing so, what have many employers come to realize? That the potential for future greatness in a job, coupled with strong on-the-job training and professional support, is more indicative of success than the name of the college someone attended.

NYU students wearing graduation caps and gowns
NYU students wearing graduation caps and gowns. Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Maybe that's why more institutions are considering offering three-year college degrees to cut down on costs. And more companies—particularly those with IT positions—are hiring workers with industry certifications, related experience and specialized credentials. Many are earning these certifications and credentials in online bootcamps and immersive learning experiences. With an average cost of $13,500, these bootcamps and immersives are a fraction of the price of earning a four-year college degree.

Which brings us back to where we started: the student loan debate. While conventional financial wisdom suggests that education-related loans should not exceed a student's first-year salary, the reality doesn't match up. These are the facts: The average starting salaries for new grads is $50,000 or less, a person who graduated from college has about $37,000 in student loan debt and the country's collective student debt has exceeded $1.7 trillion.

This trend is simply unsustainable. And so many dreams and aspirations are being deterred because of it.

I recently interviewed dozens of applicants for a position that doesn't require a college or advanced degree. I was fortunate to have met the perfect candidate: a bright and ambitious young woman who was eager to learn on the job and work hard.

When I asked why she was interviewing for the position, her reply was simple, "I want to help people," she said. "I also wanted to be an immigration lawyer and help people in my community. But I can't afford law school."

She was the best candidate by far, and I excitedly offered her the position but her statement broke my heart. While I hope that she can still fulfill her dream of becoming a lawyer one day, I also hope that we can help her make that dream an accessible reality.

If we're serious about being a country in which everyone like this young woman can fulfill their dreams and reach their full potential, we must ensure that we're not valuing one life trajectory over another. Every student and worker deserves the chance to pursue their academic and professional dreams in ways that work best for them.

That's why we must be realistic and clear-headed about the jobs that require a college degree and the ones that don't. Along the way, we must also abandon the idea that student loan debt is a rite of passage for upward mobility. The future of our workforce depends on it.

James Rhyu is the chief executive officer of Stride, Inc.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.