Requiring formal education as a default is an inequitable hiring practice we need to end


barn-owl-1208035_960_720Recently, I’ve been seeing more and more job postings list the salary range. This is awesome. As awesome as the Netflix series “Stranger Things,” which I binge-watched in three days in lieu of sleeping. As I mentioned, not listing salary is inequitable, punishing women and people of color and wasting everyone’s time; and the corollary practice of asking for salary history is as evil and gross as the monster in “Stranger Things” and also must be destroyed.

But now, we also need to focus on another pervasive and inequitable hiring practice: our default of requiring a formal degree for practically every job in our sector. If you look at job postings, you’ll likely see language like “Bachelor’s degree in related field required” or “Bachelor’s required, Master’s preferred.” Even for entry-level positions. This mention of a formal degree in job postings is so ingrained in all of us that it is seen as normal, and we don’t even stop to think about it. It’s kind of like having a veggie platter at a party; it doesn’t matter how many people will actually eat the celery sticks and raw cauliflower florets—basically three people—we must have the giant veggie platter!

If we want to create a just society, we have to be more thoughtful of our hiring practices, because this formal education requirement hurts real people and perpetuates the inequity that all of us are fighting against. Here are a few reasons why:

Formal education is expensive: College is ridiculously expensive, which makes it inaccessible to many students. And those who come from low-income families often have to choose between paying for college or helping their families out. Some join the military in order to get an education. Getting a college degree, in many ways, is becoming more and more like climbing Mt. Everest: It’s challenging, will cost at least $60,000 to attempt, and so is often accessible only to a few privileged individuals. Well, why don’t these poor students just borrow some money, you may be thinking. It is not that simple. Across the US, millions of students are in debt. These debts can be life-ruining if you cannot secure a good job. Student loans cannot be discharged through filing bankruptcy. As this depressing article detailing the racket that is the student loans business mentions, you’d be in a better shape “if you were a playboy who’d run up credit card bills living large in the Caribbean than if you were a former student who’d gotten sick or lost your job.” 

Formal education is often interrupted for many: My parents were in high school in Vietnam during the War. My mother carried her younger siblings in baskets attached at either ends of a shoulder pole as they ran from bombs that fell around them. My father enlisted to fight for South Vietnam, and because of that, he was put in labor camp for two years. Neither my parents finished high school. And they are two of the smartest people I know, who used their considerable intelligence to keep us alive as we migrated here, where none of us spoke any English. There are many people like my parents who had their formal education interrupted by factors beyond their control—political prosecution, natural disasters, violence, poverty, forced migration. To imply that these individuals—who experience life challenges most of us can only imagine—are automatically not qualified for a job because they don’t have a Bachelor’s degree is as insulting as it is unjust.

Formal education does not suit everyone’s learning style: I love education. I got my Master’s in Social Work, and it has taught me many helpful things I still use to this day, such as how to get free food. But I know college is not the only way to acquire skills and knowledge. While it is great for many people, the rigidity of our education system does not work for everyone. Some people’s creativity and talents are only unlocked outside the confines of the lecture halls. We value diversity in the sector and yet we underappreciate and look down on the different learning styles, perspectives, and life experiences that our colleagues bring. Some of the most brilliant people in history sucked at school. But they excelled at all sorts of stuff. Let’s keep in mind that one of the most influential people in our society, Bill Gates, is technically a college drop-out. Just because someone learns differently does not make them less smart than someone with a formal education.

Formal education causes us to simplify the concept of qualification: We assume that a college education will give people the basic skills to do a job. But honestly, this is a lazy way to determine qualification. When it comes to complex issues, such as the ones many of us are addressing in the nonprofit sector, it takes way more than whether someone can write term papers and pass exams. Using formal education allows us to ignore evaluating skills that may be more relevant and useful to positions. If we work with foster kids, wouldn’t having some experience in the foster care system be more critical than a psychology degree? If we work with immigrants and refugee populations, wouldn’t having experience living in and working with these communities be more helpful than an Econ major? Seriously, having gone through it, I can say that a lot of the stuff we learn in college and grad school is completely useless in the real world, and there are many people with degrees and few relevant skills.

knowledge-1052014_960_720It is ironic that so many of us are fighting for education equity, working to fix a system we know leaves behind so many people, and yet we still use formal education as a barrier to filter out job applicants. Using formal education as a default perpetuates inequity, and our organizations and our community also suffer for it, because we may be losing out on valuable diversity of perspective, skills, and experiences. So, what do we need to do about it:

Remind ourselves that education is supposed to help us achieve our goals, not define who we are. A colleague on the Nonprofit Happy Hour Facebook page writes,

“Just finished a second interview for a position I’m very much qualified for, and one of the interviewers says, ‘I’m a teacher, so obviously I place a very high value on education, and I’m having a hard time reconciling your lack of education with the rest of your resume. How did you even get these jobs?’”

Holy hummus, what an A-hole, that interviewer. Another colleague, in sympathy, posted this quote by A.M.M. Taylor: “I think people have forgotten that education is supposed to be a tool to help you on your way to greatness, not the definition of how great you are.” Many of us have forgotten that. Society has forgotten that. And education, an amazing tool designed to help people, has often become a weapon to use against them.

Determine if a position really requires an education when you have a new job listing. Think about whether a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree is really necessary, of if someone can do a perfectly good job if they have the skills and experience. If formal education is not really needed, don’t list it as a requirement. There are many positions that absolutely requires formal education. Mental health counseling, medical services, and legal work, for example. Most positions though probably don’t, if we’re honest with ourselves. I’ve been an Executive Director for nearly a decade now, and as universally difficult, complex, and volatile this position is, there is nothing about it that a hardworking, dedicated person cannot learn to do without an expensive formal degree. That’s right, you don’t need a degree to be an ED/CEO. In fact, really, the main qualification someone needs to be a good Executive Director is not a degree, but a high tolerance for pain. If I were on a board hiring an ED, the main question I would ask of candidates would be “How long can you hold this ice cube?”

Target the skills you need and put in language welcoming candidates of different education backgrounds. Your goal when hiring is finding someone who can do the job well, not just someone who has a degree. Focus on the skills and experience the job really needs, and make those the main points in your recruitment process. If you are uncomfortable with getting rid of the mention of formal education, consider saying something like “Bachelor’s degree or equivalent education or experience.”

Stop edu-shaming people. We as a society have unconsciously and sometimes consciously been sending the signal that people who don’t have degrees are somehow less accomplished, less intelligent than those who do. This is clearly not true. People who have degrees should be proud of their achievement, but not use it to make others feel less-than. I am very proud of my degrees. I worked hard for them. I think everyone should have the chance to pursue formal education if they want. But those who cannot, or who decide not to, are likely accomplished in lots of other equally valuable ways. We need to stop using our formal education to shame others.

Create a culture of constant learning and growth. An insidious effect of society’s equating of formal education with intelligence is that we unconsciously think of learning as the end of a journey. “I got my Master’s. Yup, I’m done learning.” Once we remind ourselves that education is a great tool to help us reach our potentials, but not a measure of our intelligence or skills, it allows us all to continue learning. All of us need to focus on furthering our education in various forms, whether we have a degree or not. Organizations should create a culture of learning and growth, and provide support for continuing education and professional development. It will help us see the potential in people when we are hiring and allow us to be open to all forms of education.  

Hiring is a tricky and time-consuming process. We have to determine within a few interactions whether someone is qualified to join the team. A formal degree, then, is kind of like a seal of approval indicating that an applicant is at least smart and hardworking enough to make it through college. Over time, though, this becomes ingrained as the only way that someone can prove their intelligence and dedication, which perpetuates inequity and leaves behind countless brilliant and talented people.

People like my colleague Adel Alamo, who wrote this compelling and informative piece about the inequity of requiring formal education, detailing her own personal struggles trying to go to school while supporting her family. She had to work, often to 10 or 11pm, at her family’s business, cramming in studying during the slow periods at work. Despite these challenges, she still got A’s and graduated from high school in the top 10% of her class, but because of financial reasons still couldn’t get her degree. As Adel says:

“Requiring a college degree for a non-specialized job is in fact adding to the socioeconomic disparity and inequality in this country […] Organizations cannot claim to promote diversity, inclusion, and equality when they require a college degree for non-specialized positions. It perpetuates the cycle of poverty for those that were unfortunate to have been born into a lack of privilege. A college education is not free, and until it is, it should not be the threshold for opportunity.”

There are lots of amazing individuals who would add significantly to our organizations. Some of them have degrees; some do not. If we cannot see and appreciate our non-degreed colleagues because we can’t move beyond the ingrained biases that we have toward formal education, if we cannot see how this perpetuates the very inequity we are trying to fight, then it is we employers who need to be better educated, not our colleagues who don’t have a formal degree.

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