Does Nontraditional, Online Education Have a Credibility Problem?

When it comes to doing a job, skills are more important than college degrees, but how can employers see that during the hiring process?
skills hiring

Degrees from accredited, four-year institutions have long been the standard when it comes to determining the basis for someone’s skill set. In many instances, a person’s educational background is often the first thing a recruiter considers when deciding whom to hire — and all too often that judgment is based on the brand name and pedigree of the traditional institution they attended. However, as higher education becomes less accessible due to rising tuition, and as more alternative learning platforms proliferate online, more people are able to acquire in-demand job skills without a formal college degree.

The problem: As such alternative forms of education become more common, what will it take for recruiters to equate the credibility of skills earned through these new platforms with those earned through more conventional education?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the cost of one year at a four-year college, including tuition, fees, room and board totaled $25,409 in the 2014-15 school year. With this cost only rising, a college degree is out of reach for many Americans. Online certifications come with price points at significantly lower costs than a four-year university, without the headache and crippling debt that come with student loans.

Furthermore, with the fast pace of change in business and technology, skills become quickly outdated. “The useful shelf life of a professional skill has shrunk to less than five years, which means gone are the days where the skills an employee acquired while getting their college degree are enough to sustain them throughout the expanse of their career,” said Mordy Golding, director of content at LinkedIn Learning, an online learning platform from San Francisco-based LinkedIn.

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By requiring a college degree for many roles, employers might be limiting their candidate pool too much, leading to today’s persistent skills gap. According to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2015, more than 59 percent of adults completed some college, but only 33 percent earned their bachelor’s degree or higher. What’s more, according to CareerBuilder, nearly a third of employers are increasing educational requirements of their job applicants. “Asked why, 60 percent of the employers hiring college grads over high school grads said skills for those positions have evolved, requiring more highly educated workers,” according to the Chicago Tribune. “More than half said a tight labor market has allowed them to attract college grads to jobs that traditionally haven’t called for higher education,” the article said.

These practices and intense competition, especially for tech talent, only limit the available job applicants. “When you only recruit from the same pools that you’ve traditionally recruited from, obviously the supply there is not sufficient to cover the demand,” said Kieran Luke, general manager of credentials at General Assembly, a global education company specializing in in-demand skills based in New York.

One solution to this talent pipeline challenge and skills shortage is opening up jobs to those without traditional, four-year degrees who have potentially gained skills through online platforms and certification programs. The challenge, then, is how to trust these nontraditional educational approaches, said Aaron Michel, co-founder and CEO at PathSource, an app for career exploration based in Burlingame, California. He believes that over time employers will focus more on skills than on degrees. Employers will have to see their peers also accepting these types of job candidates, and then the employees will need to be successful. “Social proof and experience will both be significant factors in driving this process forward,” Michel said.

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Getting Started

If employers are hoping to start opening up some of their positions to candidates without four-year degrees, the first step is to understand the skills needed for the role, said Elyse Rosenblum, principal for Grads of Life, a Boston-based campaign designed to connect employers and young adults without college degrees. To better grasp what those skills and behaviors are, Rosenblum suggested looking to current successful employees and understand the skills that they contribute. The new job candidates can then be asked about those skills and if they have experiences that helped them gain those competencies.

Other steps to build out this talent pipeline are as follows, via Rosenblum:

  • Understand the business problem to solve; then identify those skills needed for the role.
  • Build a strategy of how to do this, which often includes finding a training partner or education provider.
  • Design or adapt training for this talent market.
  • Offer time-limited workplace experiences, such as internships, to practice skills that the workers have developed. This also reduces the risk of bringing this talent to the workplace by allowing for a period of time to try out the fit.
  • Prepare managers to know what the employee is bringing. Have another manager act as a mentor or coach the new hire.

Other approaches include testing the skills of prospective hires. For highly technical roles, such as coding, skills testing works well, said PathSource’s Michel. The hiring manager can simply issue an exam, review the applicant’s code or have them build out coding. Outside of this role, skill testing becomes more challenging. The hiring manager can create their own assessments, which are hard to scale for all roles, said General Assembly’s Luke.

The question, then, is who should lead the process of hiring candidates from nontraditional education backgrounds? There are three stakeholder groups, said Papia Debroy, director of employer solutions at Opportunity@Work, a nonprofit dedicated to transforming hiring practices, expanding learning pathways and pioneering talent financing based in Washington, D.C.

  1. Someone in the C-suite who understands that there is talent the company is overlooking.
  2. The HR organization needs to be on board, due to the changing requirements of the recruiting team.
  3. Finally, the hiring manager needs to believe that their potential hire from the nontraditional path can be a successful candidate.

Results From Recruiting

A variety of results can come from taking away restrictions on job applicants. The first of which is putting new employees in the roles that the company has found difficult to fill.

Also, companies could see a lower cost to hiring these workers. The average cost of recruiting STEM talent in North America is $12,309 per hire, according to CEB’s “Employer Playbook: Best Practices and Tools to Recruit Technology Talent from Nontraditional Sources.” There’s also stiff competition that accompanies these positions, driving up the salary and benefits needed to sign workers on. However, candidates from nontraditional backgrounds, who didn’t spend the time or the fortune on traditional college, will likely accept a lower salary, the CEB paper said.

A reduction in the interview-to-hire ratio is another possible outcome of hiring candidates from nontraditional sources. SK Food Group Inc., a food manufacturing and service company based in Seattle, says it saw a reduced interview-to-hire ratio when it worked with LeadersUp, a talent development nonprofit and partner of Grads of Life. One out of every two applicants through LeadersUp saw an offer, which is much lower than the 18 to 1 industry standard, according to Grads of Life’s Rosenblum.

Finally, hiring from a more diverse candidate pool leads to a more diverse workforce. Online courses and other alternative learning platforms are a great way to enable the people who didn’t go to college but have potential to work their way up the socioeconomic ladder and into positions where they can make a difference, said PathSource’s Michel.

“The shift toward nontraditional education is going to be something that’s really, really good for America. It’s just a matter of getting to a point where employers can really trust and understand the value that different types of nontraditional educational approaches brings,” Michel said.

Lauren Dixon is an associate editor at Talent Economy. To comment, email