Inside her apartment in Watertown on a recent afternoon, Emily Knowles met with her software development team remotely, testing apps to make sure they work the way they’re supposed to.
Knowles, a quality assurance analyst, is bi-racial — a daughter of Black and white immigrants who never went to college. She's working in tech — a field dominated by highly-educated white and Asian men.
“This is something that I never thought would be possible,” she said.
That’s, in part, because the 23-year-old has some college credits but not a degree.
Before she landed her job with Ovia Health, a Boston-based digital company that serves people who are starting families with fertility, pregnancy and parenting, 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 the same type of people who often have the same type of education and advantages. As the sector expands, economists say this trend is reinforcing inequality. So, Ovia Health and other companies outside of the field are identifying entry-level jobs like the one Knowles got and dropping the degree requirement to diversify their staffs and to gain a market advantage.
“It’s not about doing the right thing for us. It’s about being a great company,” said Paris Wallace, CEO and co-founder of Ovia Health.
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.
“We were missing out on a lot of talent by having what we saw was an arbitrary requirement for many positions,” said Wallace.
Massachusetts has the highest percentage of jobs that require some education beyond high school. Wallace said, for him, dropping those requirements wasn’t just about increasing access and equality.
“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.
Companies outside the tech industry, including State Street and CVS, are doing the same, said Tracy Burns, CEO of the Northeast Human Resources Association.
“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 Burns, adding that she’s been encouraging other employers to drop the requirement.
“I should be agnostic,” she said. “I do have a master's degree, so I value higher education, but I also think that it helps level the playing field.”
As the cost of college has spiked, Burns said, it’s increasingly hard for companies to justify requiring a four-year degree.
“I think it's just been sort of this degree inflation rampant here in the Northeast,” she said. “We have so many educational institutions that, you know, 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.”
Some economists argue it may be even worse, because employers demanding a bachelor's degree as a screen for hiring 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, who is Black and earned a PhD from Oxford, 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 percent of African-Americans. You're screening out about 80 percent of Latino-Latina workers, and you're screening out over 80 percent 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.
Carnevale, who is white and has a PhD himself, said college credentials are still the most efficient way to hire. But 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.”
Today, Carnevale said, we’re seeing more and more employers test what candidates, including college graduates, know and know how to do.
“The higher education system is not only delinquent in being transparent and accountable in terms of your ability to get a job with the program you're in, but is delinquent in determining that you learned anything,” he said, pointing out that colleges are floundering around trying to defend themselves “mostly in their marketing departments, claiming that they're producing these skills.”
“But we don't know whether or not we are producing these skills,” he said.
Kevin Fudge, director of advocacy at American Student Assistance in Boston which works to help young people identify their skills, has been advocating for companies to drop degree requirements and ask, instead, how they can invest in their local communities beyond giving scholarships to high school graduates.
“If you want a diverse and talented workforce, you can invest in it,” Fudge said. “You can invest earlier. There’s opportunities to engage seventh and eighth and ninth graders as they’re transitioning into high school and taking on more. We all win when everybody gets to participate and everybody feels that they’re part of something.”
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, where, over the past two years, the percentage of employees without college degrees has increased from one to five percent.
Kantor is white and graduated from Babson College with no loans.
“I was a resident assistant, which launched my career in HR, but I think that experience isn't better than the experience someone is getting in the same four years that they didn't go to college,” she said. “They could’ve been doing Americorps. They could’ve been working at Whole Foods.”
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 “rather than a piece of paper that someone paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for.”
“Yes, it may take a couple of extra days or a little bit extra time looking through resumes, but usually it pays of," she said. "For us, definitely. And for the candidates especially who get access to a role that they may not have otherwise if we didn’t take off the degree requirement.”
For candidates like Emily Knowles, who said she thinks her life experience is giving Ovia a competitive edge.
“At the beginning, I was afraid to say things because it's like I'm just this kid who hasn't been to college, but they really do care and they really want to hear and they take those to heart and will do what we can to put those into our applications.”
Despite her ability to get ahead without a degree, Knowles is enrolling in a computer science program this spring. But she doesn’t plan to leave the workforce. She’ll take courses online and at night.
This was produced as part of the Higher Education Media Fellowship at the Institute for Citizens & Scholars. The fellowship supports new reporting into issues related to post-secondary career and technical education.
Production assistant Diane Adame contributed research to this report.