Employers are increasingly finding value in looking beyond traditional degrees to identify and hire best-fit candidates, but more than one-third of teens believe hiring managers and companies still favor a college education, according to a national survey commissioned by American Student Assistance (ASA), a national nonprofit changing the way middle and high schoolers learn about careers and navigate education-to-career opportunities, and Jobs for the Future (JFF), a national nonprofit that drives transformation in the American workforce and education systems.

The new research, conducted by Morning Consult, consisted of interviews and baseline surveys of 1,500 Gen Z teens and more than 600 employers, to understand current familiarity with and perceptions of non-degree postsecondary pathways. The key findings of the survey are part of a new report, “Degrees of Risk: What Gen Z and Employers Think About Education-to-Career Pathways…and How Those Views are Changing.”

“The four-year college degree is clearly not the only path to success. Encouraging students to pursue that route without considering all their options is outdated and is increasingly out of step with the demands of a new generation of young people hungry for skills, opportunities, and a career journey that offers financial freedom on their own terms,” said Jean Eddy, president and CEO of ASA. “That’s why ASA is collaborating with JFF on this important initiative to increase awareness, understanding, and acceptance of non-degree learning opportunities.”

Jean Eddy, President and CEO of ASA

According to the report, both students and employers say that non-degree pathways can be high-quality learning opportunities, but both groups believe that they need more information to better understand the full range of options and their quality, including non-traditional degrees and other credentials.

While both groups also agree that proof of skills should be prioritized over degrees, the survey found a gap between understanding the options and willingness to participate in or take action on non-degree options. Gen Z teens and employers are both apprehensive about making the wrong choice, either in the pathway they pursue or candidates they hire. They don’t understand the options for non-degree credentials and the value they provide, and believe the risk is too great to diverge from the known entity of a degree.

Maria Flynn, President and CEO of JFF.
Maria Flynn, President and CEO of JFF.

“This research underscores that despite shifting attitudes about college–declining enrollment, a desire for more flexible pathways, and a trend toward skill-based hiring–there is still difficult and important work ahead to ensure that students understand the full breadth of options available to them, and employers can have the confidence to hire workers without a college degree,” said Maria Flynn, president and CEO of JFF.

  • Skills-Based Hiring Gains Traction. Both employers and Gen Z rank skills as the most important consideration in choosing an education or training program: 74% of Gen Z want to earn skills that will lead to a good job and 81% of employers believe they should look at skills rather than degrees when hiring. More than two-thirds (68%) of employers say they want to hire from non-degree pathways.
  • Employers—and Young People—Still Default to Degrees. Even though most employers (72%) don’t see a degree as a reliable signal for assessing the skills of a candidate, the majority (52%) still hire from degree programs because they believe it is a less risky choice when hiring. Gen Z students are still defaulting to degree programs because many (37%) believe employers favor degrees.
  • Fear of the Unknown. As a result, Gen Z fear there is too much risk associated with choosing the wrong non-degree post secondary path (65%). And 80% of employers want more information on how non-degree paths differ.

Degrees of Risk: What Gen Z and Employers Think About Education-to-Career Pathways…and How Those Views are Changing” offers recommendations for the way forward to expand high-quality postsecondary options for all learners. In addition to the report, a landscape of non-degree pathways and a survey of policymakers and politicians on their perceptions of these nontraditional paths, will be published later this year as part of this research.

JFF and ASA will continue to build a coalition of support for widespread acceptance of quality education-to-career pathways. This will include supporting existing pathway programs and spurring innovation to create new models, working to ensure there is a strong quality-assurance infrastructure, and fostering strong career navigation supports. By connecting ideas, convening partners, and uplifting solutions, we will enable more young people to be well-positioned to make informed, confident choices to achieve success in their chosen career fields, which will ultimately lead to more equitable economic advancement for all.

Lou Calamaras, CIR, CCWP

Lou founded ContingentWorkforce.com in 2021 with the intention to bring global attention and innovation coverage to the Contingent Workforce sector. Spending the first decade of his career focused on niche B2B digital media production, Lou transitioned into talent acquisition through Executive Recruiting, RPO candidate sourcing (AIRS Certified Internet Recruiter), RPO high-volume operations support, and global Contingent Workforce management (Certified Contingent Workforce Professional Certificate). Lou’s career provided experience under multiple workforce classifications, whether as a contractor, sole proprietor, business owner, or employee. Lou lives in the Chicagoland area, where he is active in several local communities. When not working you’ll find him excited to spend fun times with his wife and rough-housing with his two boys. If you are interested in how the audience of ContingentWorkforce.com can help your organization, please send Lou a message. Lou@ContingentWorkforce.com