A college degree is still worth it after all

May 10, 2023, 3:30 PM UTC
woman at graduation high-fiving
A college degree is no easy feat, and employers seem to recognize that.
Courtney Hale - Getty Images

To get a good job in most industries, it’s still in your best interest to give it the old college try. 

In the past few years, and especially during the pandemic, a groundswell of support has come out of Fortune 500 leaders for non-degree-holding job applicants. Companies including Google, Microsoft, IBM, and Apple have eliminated their long-held degree requirements for jobs. Suddenly, the doors at major corporations have flung open for nontraditional workers—or new workforce entrants with untraditional backgrounds. Its many proponents might call it the skills-based revolution

But it’s not quite a revolution yet. A new analysis from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce confirms what traditionalists might already have guessed: Despite the move towards skills-based hiring and learning on the job, earning a bachelor’s degree is an irreplaceable asset. What’s more, earning that degree early on—before you hit your mid-20s—is the best way to secure a good job by 30.

To be sure, that’s coming from Georgetown, a storied institute of higher education, whose interests squarely align with the idea that college is compulsory. The report, though, zeroes in on the various paths most likely to result in a “good job,” which they define as one that pays at least $38,000 in 2020 dollars for workers younger than 45 and at least $49,000 for workers older than 45. The 30-year-olds, the focus of the report, earned a median $57,000 annual salary.

In the report, Georgetown studied the government data of over 8,000 Americans born in the early 1980s from their teenage years until they turned 30. Within that time range, they picked out 38 decision points that they figured would influence the workers’ ability to snag a “good job.” Of those decision points, none were more impactful than working to earn a bachelor’s degree. 

In the country’s current college-aged population, Georgetown writes, there are 4.8 million high school graduates who are “academically prepared” to enroll in a bachelor’s degree program, yet they aren’t expected to do so before turning 22. Moving these individuals onto the bachelor’s degree pathway, they add, could result in 765,000 more people with good jobs by the time they turn 30.

Degrees are king, but skills don’t hurt

While a robust educational background is unbeatable, skills-based hiring is catching fire, even among the most traditional stalwarts. 

Earlier this year, in his first executive order, Pennsylvania governor Josh Shapiro mandated hiring managers in state government jobs to prioritize experience over pedigree. He immediately removed college degree requirements from 92%, or approximately 65,000, Commonwealth jobs.

“There are many different pathways to success, whether it’s through on the job training, an apprenticeship, vocational education, or college,” Shapiro said in his inaugural address. “My view is, if you’re qualified for the job, then you should get the job here in Pennsylvania.” 

Barriers to entry for vast swaths of jobs “hurt us all,” he went on. But the tide is slowly turning. In November of 2022, just 41% of U.S.-based jobs required a bachelor’s degree, down from 46% in early 2019. 

In 2016, IBM coined the term “new collar jobs” to describe roles that need specific skills rather than a specific degree. Between 2011 and 2021, the share of the company’s job postings that required a four-year degree fell from 95% to under 50%. 

The experts increasingly agree it’s a better move because it widens the talent pool amid a historically tight job market, allows for more unique and nuanced skills and viewpoints, and—not to be overlooked—levels the playing field for everyone else. 

Ginni Rometty, IBM’s former CEO, told Fortune that non-degree-holding hires performed just as well as those with Ph.D.s. Telva McGruder, chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer, told Fortune that degrees aren’t “necessarily the be-all, end-all indicator of someone’s potential.” And LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky said a skills-first mentality is the only way bosses can expect to survive the current economy: “If we had just taken a view on what are the skills necessary; who has those skills; how can we help them acquire a couple of skills to help them become employed; we would have found ourselves in a much more efficient labor market.”

But the writing isn’t on the wall for degrees quite yet. Although more companies are loosening degree requirements, the majority still have them. Georgetown’s study shows that college is an inarguable benefit to any job applicant’s resume—but recognizes that attaining (and paying for) a degree is anything but straightforward.

“Ultimately,” Georgetown’s study concludes, “expanding access to economic opportunity more broadly and more fairly will require replacing the patchwork approach that currently exists across government, educational institutions, and businesses with a coordinated and comprehensive all-one-system approach.”

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