MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
A college degree - it's a must-have for a lot of jobs in America. Now though, some employers say they are dropping degree requirements for certain jobs, this to diversify their staffs and to gain a market advantage. From member station GBH in Boston, Kirk Carapezza reports.
KIRK CARAPEZZA, BYLINE: Inside her apartment in Watertown, Mass., Emily Knowles meets with her software development team.
EMILY KNOWLES: The config flows, those are all super easy.
CARAPEZZA: Knowles is a quality assurance analyst. And via Zoom, she's testing apps to make sure they work the way they're supposed to. She uses a lot of jargon.
KNOWLES: We're going over in bug bash today the ExoPlayer for video playback.
CARAPEZZA: Knowles is biracial, the daughter of Black and white immigrants. Her parents never went to college. And she's working in tech, a field dominated by highly educated white and Asian men.
KNOWLES: This is something that I never thought would be possible.
CARAPEZZA: The 23-year-old has some college credits, but not a degree. Before she landed this job with Ovia Health, a Boston-based family planning company, Knowles was working as an aide at an elementary school. But after attending a software boot camp, she says her dream was to work in tech.
KNOWLES: I was always just like, I would never be able to do that. I do not have the mental capacity to think in that way. But as I kept being offered opportunities to advance in a tech world without a degree, I just kind of kept taking them.
CARAPEZZA: To diversify their staffs, Ovia Health and other companies outside of the field are identifying entry-level jobs like the one Knowles got and dropping the degree requirement.
PARIS WALLACE: We were missing out on a lot of talent by having what we saw was an arbitrary requirement for many positions.
CARAPEZZA: That's Paris Wallace, CEO and co-founder of Ovia Health. Wallace is Black and a graduate of Amherst and Harvard Business School. Two years ago, he says his leadership team decided to remove the degree requirements for all jobs.
WALLACE: It's a huge competitive advantage versus those companies that only are hiring those Ivy League folks and have no idea the experience of the people that they serve every day.
CARAPEZZA: Other companies, like the financial firm State Street, the hotel chain Hilton and the publisher Penguin Random House, are doing the same for some jobs. Tracy Burns is CEO of the Northeast Human Resources Association. She says as the cost of college has spiked, it's increasingly hard for companies to justify requiring a four-year degree.
TRACY BURNS: We just throw it on there as a way to say we're hiring the best and the brightest, but it's not really much of an indication of that.
CARAPEZZA: Some economists agree, and they say employers requiring a four-year degree just increases social and racial inequality.
BYRON AUGUSTE: They've turned college from a bridge to opportunity to a drawbridge that gets pulled up if someone hasn't gotten through.
CARAPEZZA: Economist Byron Auguste served as deputy director of the National Economic Council in the Obama administration. Auguste says in 2021, college degrees have become a proxy for race and class in America.
AUGUSTE: You are screening out over 70% of African Americans, you're screening out about 80% of Latino/Latina workers and you're screening out over 80% of rural Americans of all races. And you're doing that before any skills are assessed. It's not fair.
CARAPEZZA: So employers like Ovia Health in Boston are asking candidates to prove their skills through what they call competency-based hiring.
LEXI KANTOR: It definitely creates a little bit more work.
CARAPEZZA: Lexi Kantor is head of human resources at Ovia. She tells her hiring managers not to ask about college and to put more value on life experience.
KANTOR: Rather than a piece of paper that someone paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for.
CARAPEZZA: That helps job candidates like Emily Knowles, who says she's grown more confident in her new job.
KNOWLES: At the beginning, I was, like, afraid to say things because it's like I'm just this kid, like, who hasn't been to college. But they really do care, and they really want to hear, and they take those to heart.
CARAPEZZA: Despite getting ahead without a degree, Knowles is enrolling in a computer science program, but she doesn't plan to leave the workforce. She'll take courses online and at night. For NPR News, I'm Kirk Carapezza in Boston.
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