Walmart just took a major step to lift the ceiling on opportunities for its workforce. The nation’s largest retailer and one of the largest employers—with 1.4 million employees—removed degree requirements from many corporate jobs. Walmart’s move adds fuel to the growing movement in the private and public sectors to tear the paper ceiling.

At one time, a four-year college degree was a Willy Wonka golden ticket to the middle class. If you graduated with a diploma, you were guaranteed a “good” white-collar job on which to raise a family or climb the social ladder.

As a result of more students funneling into college post-high school, we gained a bifurcated workforce. The college-educated and non-degreed have differed in their outcomes. The latter largely fared worse in employment, income, and economic mobility measures. To be “uneducated” in America is a stigma that young people have been conditioned to reject. 

Thankfully that trend has started to change, but for those without a degree, the damage has been done as new research suggests.

Life is Shorter Without a Segree

According to an analysis of death records, there’s a startling difference in life expectancy for Americans with a college degree compared to those without one.

In 2020, life expectancy at age 25 for those with four-year college degrees rose to 59 years up from 54 years in 1992. So an average individual would live to 84 years old up from 79. 

Life expectancy for non-degree individuals started out two and a half years lower, at 51.6 in 1992, but fell to 49.8 years in 2021. An average individual would live to 75 years down from 77 years.

Writing for the New York Times, Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton noted:

… there is not one but two Americas — and a clear line demarcating the division is educational attainment. Americans with four-year college degrees are flourishing economically, while those without are struggling.

Worse still, as we discovered in new research, the America of those without college degrees has been scarred by death and staggeringly shorter life spans.

Almost two-thirds of American adults do not have college degrees, and they have become increasingly excluded from good jobs, political power and social esteem. As their lives and livelihoods are threatened, their longevity declines.

The economists point to several factors one of which is degree inflation or the proliferation of degree requirements for jobs that previously did not need a degree.

Pursuing an “educated” workforce is an admirable goal. The desire for American colleges and universities to churn out the best and brightest to power our economy to new heights and stand head-and-shoulders above our counterparts worldwide was well placed. 

That hasn’t necessarily happened. Students graduate from college with degrees and debt but employers believe many degreed applicants lack the soft skills such as teamwork, communication, and critical thinking that are needed in workplaces.

Degree holders also doubt the value of degrees. Americans’ confidence in higher education hit an all-time low, according to a Gallup poll earlier this year. Only 36% of Americans have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education, down about 20 percentage points from eight years ago. 

Over the past 30 years, the U.S. economy transformed from a manufacturing economy to a service economy. It’s astonishing that in 1990, the manufacturing industry employed more workers than any other sector in 36 states. In 2014, manufacturing was the dominant industry in only seven states. Different skills and training are needed for today’s economy some of which might require a degree, but not all.

The Way Forward

We should be encouraged that private sector employers like Walmart, IBM, and Google have eliminated degree requirements. They have rewritten job descriptions to capture the actual skills needed for positions rather than using the four-year degree as a signal of competence.

As we’ve written, the degree has been used as a shortcut in the hiring process, but that has backfired on employers and created barriers to opportunity and mobility for American workers.

Walmart executives explain their decision to eliminate degree requirements for jobs such as cybersecurity analysts and shift towards certificates or other skills-based hiring methods:

In the broader economy, “we’ve used degrees as proxies for skills that have, frankly, been weak proxies,” says Julie Gehrki, vice president of philanthropy for Walmart.org. “Moving to a skills-based system is saying we actually need to be more granular than this. We need to recognize the specific pieces of skills people have. They need to be validated in some way.”

In addition, public employers are also removing degree requirements for state jobs. Over a dozen red and blue states, beginning with Maryland under Former Governor Larry Hogan, have eliminated degree requirements and sent a powerful message that a degree should not hold qualified workers back from ample opportunities, especially in a tight labor market.