Employers in North Carolina and across the country are struggling to find qualified workers to fill key positions in their organizations. As they reconsider the minimum qualifications they are willing to accept, those screening candidates are increasingly setting aside the requirement of a four-year degree.

Gov. Roy Cooper on Monday signed an executive order that directed state agencies to treat experience as equivalent to a degree for most positions, a move that many other states have already taken.

An article earlier this year from WCNC in Charlotte highlighted that many major companies, like IBM, Google, and Delta are dropping their degree requirements too. They are in need of workers, and if someone shows they can do the job, a degree is irrelevant.

Arizona has even dropped the requirement for public school teachers to hold a four-year degree. North Carolina, while not going to that extent yet, will provide a new teacher certification process at community colleges for those whose four-year degree was in something other than education.

The college-debt crisis

This is disappointing news for young Americans who were told a four-year degree was the golden ticket allowing them to take part in the modern job market, and now find that their golden ticket may be losing its luster. Add to that the crushing college debt many are facing, and some will undoubtedly feel that it was all a waste.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, “Student debt has more than doubled over the last two decades. As of September 2022, about forty-eight million U.S. borrowers collectively owed more than $1.6 trillion in federal student loans. Additional private loans bring that total to above $1.7 trillion, surpassing auto loans and credit card debt. Only home mortgage debt, at about $12 trillion, is larger.”

Below is the 2022-23 estimated cost to attend Duke University in Durham for a year — $84,517. After financial aid and scholarships, that number is much lower for many students. But someone (government, endowments, donors) are paying the rest. The debt accumulated at the end of four years is often enough to financially cripple young adults until the middle of their careers, as they pay the equivalent of another rent payment every month.

Enrollment declining

If the costs of getting a four-year degree have gone up and the benefits have gone down, basic economics suggests that fewer people will choose to pursue these degrees. And that’s the undeniable trend.

Enrollment dropped at the UNC System schools by 2% in 2022. Jenna Robinson at the Martin Center says this has been a nationwide trend since 2010, both due to fewer high school graduates and because fewer of those graduates are choosing to go to college.

My younger brother just reached the position of athletic director at a college in Illinois, only to hear soon after that the college was shutting down the entire campus, including athletics, and will only offer online degrees. They cited dropping enrollment.

While the decision not to attend college may be smart economics for many whose future career won’t require a degree, it is unfortunate to see this traditional right-of-passage fading away. It had been a time for young adults to consider their best path forward and to study the “less practical” subjects of the humanities, like philosophy, history, literature, and the arts. Study in these has long been seen as the road to becoming a well-rounded person.

Arguably, both of these benefits of the college experience have been fading away though. On some campuses, students do less thinking about their future than they do about parties and social life, developing bad habits that set them back rather than prepare them for a life of productive work at their vocation. And those once-enriching humanities courses are increasingly becoming one-sided and dogmatic.

I have a friend who is a plumber and graduated with a GED from our high school, never attending college. As an adult, he has gained a curiosity for the humanities, and during his commutes between jobs has been voraciously consuming the classics of literature, like Homer’s Odyssey, Dante’s Inferno, and Shakespeare, on audiobook. Even if college is not necessary in the future for many jobs, technology and curiosity thankfully will keep knowledge available to the masses. Even before audiobooks, many of the wisest figures in history, like Abraham Lincoln, were autodidacts.

The four-year college paradigm served our nation well for many years. But if the investment of time and money puts it out of reach for most people, and if it’s no longer seen as necessary to qualify one for most jobs, we should prepare ourselves for a dramatic shift in attitude towards college.

For some professions (doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc), they will always need extensive education and training to do their high-stakes, technical jobs well. Higher education will remain the only path forward for them. But for millions of others, skipping four years of college may simply be the right decision as degrees cease being the ticket to a high-paying job.