Despite hype, short-term certificates & skill-based hiring are underperforming

"When viewed from the vantage point of job postings, Skills-Based Hiring seems to be a juggernaut," the report from the Burning Glass Institute and Harvard Business School reads. "However, deeper analysis of actual hiring patterns suggests a wide gap between intent and impact."

Skills-based hiring and the short-term certificates touted to help students gain industry experience and professionalism have gained a lot of momentum at the start of the new decade. However, higher education leaders worried about the relevance of the college degree in the coming decade can relax: a pair of reports suggest that degree earners still hold a considerable advantage in the application pool and are guaranteed to fare better a decade removed from school.

It wouldn’t be incorrect to assume that the value of a college degree has come under fire. Degree inflation and the time, money and energy burden of earning a degree with possibly a small return on investment has led private and public sector employers to begin dropping degree requirements. Equally, student interest in short-term, alternative credentials continues to notch interest within the higher education system and through nontraditional means.

Employers champion skills-based hiring “in name only”

However, the Burning Glass Institute and Harvard Business School set out to see which employers put their money where their mouth is when they announced they were dropping degree requirements. Researchers studied 11,300 unique roles at large firms and their related job postings between 2014 and 2023. While they found a fourfold increase in employers who dropped degree requirements, less than one in 700 new hires lack a degree. Furthermore, for every 100 jobs that removed its bachelor’s degree requirement, only about four hires were non-degree workers.

“When viewed from the vantage point of job postings, Skills-Based Hiring seems to be a juggernaut,” the report reads. “However, deeper analysis of actual hiring patterns suggests a wide gap between intent and impact.”

Of all the employers BGI and Harvard Business School found championed skills-based hiring, it classified about 45% of them to do so “In Name Only,” meaning the researchers found no meaningful difference in hiring behavior following their announcement to remove degree requirements.

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Short-term certificates falter

Similarly, a new report from the HEA Group, a research and consulting agency focused on college access and success, discovered a troubling trend of higher education credentials underperforming. Certificates led the way. Of the 305 institutions whose students failed to earn more than $21,870 (150% of the poverty line) a decade after enrolling, 90% of the programs were short-term certificates, Forbes reports.

Moreover, 715 of the 1,363 institutions that offer certificates left students with median average earnings of less than $30,000, according to the research’s data. This specific figure is the amount an individual working $15 an hour at a full-time position makes.

The HEA Group used data from the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard to assess the earnings outcomes of approximately five million students across 3,887 accredited higher education institutions.

Degree competition looms

While higher education leaders can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that employers are still smitten with the college degree and rivalry from alternative credentials is currently lacking, the next decade or so will prove to be a more solid forecast. The Burning Glass Institute and Harvard Business School noted that about 20% of employers are leading the pack in skills-based hiring. If their buy-in trickles to other companies, skills-based hiring can make a more significant proportion of hires.

“It is a significant shift, but modest—less than a quarter of what could have been realized if all employers had made the same level of change as did the top third of firms in our sample,” the report reads.

And while short-term certificates may seem like a risky endeavor, buy-in among parents and guidance counselors is continuously growing.

“Some students have no desire to pursue a four-year college education but recognize that the opportunity to pursue high-paying careers still exists with alternative routes,” said Monica Jones, a college and career readiness coach at Frederick Douglass High School in Kentucky, according to U.S. News & World Report. “Community, technical, trade schools and apprenticeships are also affordable post-secondary options.”

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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