On a recent afternoon, Emily Knowles was testing out apps with her software development team, making sure they work properly.
“This is something that I never thought would be possible,” she said. That’s in part, because the 23-year-old from Watertown, Mass., has some credits but she doesn’t have a college degree.
Knowles, a quality assurance analyst, is bi-racial. Both her parents are immigrants and they never went to college. And now Knowles is working in tech — a field dominated by highly-educated white and Asian men.
Before she landed her job with Ovia Health, a Boston-based digital company that serves people who are starting families, Knowles was working as an aide at an elementary school. After attending a software boot camp, though, she said her dream was to work in tech.
“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,’” she said. “But as I kept being offered opportunities to advance in a tech world without a degree, I just kind of kept taking them.”
The tech industry is filled with people who have the same type of education and advantages. As the sector expands, economists say this reinforces inequality. Ovia Health is among a number of companies identifying entry-level jobs like the one Knowles has and dropping the degree requirement. The objective is to diversify their staffs and gain a market advantage.
“We were missing out on a lot of talent by having what we saw as an arbitrary requirement for a lot of positions,” said Paris Wallace, CEO and co-founder of Ovia Health. “It’s not about doing the right thing for us. It’s about being a great company.”
Wallace is African-American and a graduate of Amherst College and Harvard Business School. Two years ago, he says, his leadership team decided to remove the degree requirements for all jobs.
“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,” he said.
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.
“It might not be all job descriptions, but [there’s] definitely a trend to really evaluate the true necessity of a four-year degree,” said Tracy Burns, CEO of the Northeast Human Resources Association, adding that she’s been encouraging other employers to drop the requirement.
As the cost of college has spiked, Burns said, it’s increasingly hard for companies to justify requiring a four-year degree. For a long time, she says, it’s been a way for companies to say, “we’re hiring the best and the brightest. But it’s not really much of an indication of that.”
Some economists agree and they say employers requiring a four-year degree increases social and racial inequality.
“They’ve turned college from a bridge to opportunity to a drawbridge that gets pulled up if someone hasn’t gotten through,” said economist Byron Auguste, who served as deputy director of the National Economic Council in the Obama administration and now is the CEO of Opportunity@Work.
Auguste said in 2021 college degrees have become a proxy for race and class in America.
“If you arbitrarily say that a job needs to have a bachelor’s degree, 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,” he explained. “And you’re doing that before any skills are assessed. It’s not fair.”
“We’ve become a credentialed society,” said economist Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.
While Carnevale believes college credentials are still the most efficient way to hire he thinks America is suffering from what he calls ‘credentialism.’
“You can’t get a job or move in the labor market without a piece of paper that says you can do something, and that is a very un-American idea,” Carnevale said. “It’s why Lincoln read for the law and didn’t have to go to law school.”
Recently though, Carnevale said, we’re seeing something of a shift: more employers testing candidates for what they know and know how to do.
Employers like Ovia Health in Boston are taking note and asking candidates to prove their skills through what they call competency- or project-based hiring.
“It definitely creates a little bit more work,” said Lexi Kantor, head of human resources at Ovia.
Kantor said she tells hiring managers not to ask candidates about college or fraternities and sororities. Instead, the company puts more value on life experience.
That helps job candidates like Emily Knowles, who says she’s grown more confident in her new job.
“At the beginning, I was like afraid to say things because I’m just this kid who hasn’t been to college but they really do care and they really want to hear [what you think] and they take that to heart,” she said.
Despite getting ahead without a degree, Knowles is enrolling in a computer science program. But she doesn’t plan to leave the workforce and lose her paycheck. She’ll take courses online and at night.