Maryland Governor Larry Hogan just announced a powerful workforce development initiative that cancels college degree requirements for thousands of state jobs. Positions will be opened up to candidates with other skills and experience. 

This move will make for a more inclusive workforce and will hopefully, prompt private-sector employers and other states to reconsider the unnecessary barriers to work imposed by four-year degree requirements.   

What’s happening

Last week, Governor Hogan announced a partnership with D.C.-based nonprofit Opportunity@Work, to develop a program called “skilled through alternative routes” or STARS. They have identified IT, administrative, and customer service positions that should be open to non-degree holders. Some 300 STARS jobs were added immediately to the state website and as many as 38,000 jobs could qualify according to analysis.

Governor Hogan said:

It is more important than ever that we work together to find new ways to build a steady pipeline of talented, well-trained skilled workers for the jobs of the future. That means pursuing bold, innovative ideas and being committed to leaving no skilled workers behind.

Giving non-degreed workers a hand up

Reconsidering degree requirements for state jobs is a symbolic gesture meant to spur both private employers and other states to reconsider their job requirements. The governor claims that Maryland would be the first state in the nation to take such action.

The benefits to workers are clear, but the states and employers who follow stand to benefit as well. Worker shortages continue to plague our economy with some sectors struggling to recruit workers amidst short-term issues and long-term structural changes affecting the labor market. 

In the short-term, generous pandemic benefits have been a disincentive to work, but those have come to an end. As workers spend down savings, they are moving back into the workforce. Also, workers fearful of contracting COVID-19 can feel more confident as vaccines, boosters, and treatments are widely available. 

However, long-term challenges remain: retiring workers are leaving the workforce taking critical experience and skills. It will take time to replace them. Some industries struggle to recruit young people.

By eliminating degree requirements, the state of Maryland is expanding its pool of qualified applicants. 

It’s not dumbing down these jobs but considering more than just a degree. Military service, community college, previous work experience, and other training can qualify an individual for one of these STAR jobs.

Critics defend the status quo

The Washington Post reported on the mix of celebration and skepticism to this effort. Framing the move as coming amidst the ongoing debate over the value of college degrees, critics worry the governor is lowering standards or placing those with degrees — and lots of student loan debt — at a disadvantage.

“Education has been seen as a pillar of the American Dream,” Frederick R. Lynch, an associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, said. “Maybe it isn’t anymore.”

After Hogan’s announcement, Lynch wrote on Twitter, “Reducing incentives for higher education is now considered a great idea? …Ignores cultural, political and social benefits of higher education. Sad.”

A representative of Opportunity@Work pushed back adding that they are not “anti-college” but believe that there are many paths to success.

A workforce expert at Georgetown University, Anthony P. Carnevale, further explained that we have become a credential society as evidenced by the number of jobs requiring a degree.

In the 1970s, most jobs didn’t require a college degree. “Now it has literally flipped,” he said.

The share of jobs requiring postsecondary education went from just under one-third in 1983 to nearly two-thirds in 2021, and is projected to increase to 72 percent by 2031, Carnevale said. And in 1980-1981, fewer than a million bachelor’s degrees were awarded, but that number had more than doubled by 2018-2019.

And that leads to credentialism, he argued, with “unjust barriers to upward mobility for lots of people.”

Bottom Line

A four-year degree is not — and should not be — the only pathway to success. Maryland’s move to remove college credentialing requirements for potentially tens of thousands of jobs will extend a hand up to many workers who have been left behind.

It’s past time for the government to consider how over credentialing — like excessive occupational licensure — is holding Americans back and to do something about it.