Companies drop degree requirement as grads skip college for a job

The genie’s out of the bottle. The flight of students from college campuses continues to gain momentum, driven by tuition hikes, soaring student loan debt and doubts over the relevance of a traditional four-year degree in the job market.

College administrators should be chastened by the Star Tribune profile of a former Mankato State University student who dropped out after realizing he didn’t need to stake his future on a four-year degree to get where he wanted to go in the corporate world.

[Kai] Westby, 20, left the university and soon discovered a new apprenticeship program with Aon insurance company that could also lead to his dream corporate career.

Now a year into the program, Westby works for Aon while pursuing an associate degree in marketing and management at Normandale Community College. The company pays him a salary, covers his tuition, and is offering him a chance to move into a higher position — such as insurance specialist, human resource specialist or IT analyst — once he completes his two-year apprenticeship.

“I thought about leaving four years of college and I’m like, ‘That’s just four years with a piece of paper and a lot of debt,'” Westby said. “But this is a great experience with absolutely no debt left behind.”

The number of undergraduate college students in Minnesota and much of the nation has declined markedly in recent years. Not surprisingly, companies appear to have responded to the changing expectations of high school graduates more creatively than the higher education institutions being left behind in the transition.

Workers without degrees are in high demand in Minnesota. Eight of the state’s top 10 in-demand occupations require only a high school diploma. And more than 40% of the roughly 206,000 job vacancies in the second quarter of 2021 had no educational requirements, according to the state Department of Employment and Economic Development’s most recent data.

Registered trade apprenticeships — only some of which require education at a technical college — have also been on the rise in Minnesota, more than doubling since the late 1990s, according to the state Department of Labor and Industry.

Aon and several high-profile companies in Minnesota have formed a corporate apprentice program to train participants without college degrees for white-collar positions. The trend to short-circuit the traditional four-year college path in favor of alternatives that allow applicants instant access to the workplace has clearly begun to catch on here and elsewhere.

More than 80 of America’s largest employers — including Minnesota-based companies Best Buy, Target and Medtronic —recently pledged to change their hiring and promotion practices to emphasize skills over college degrees.

Medtronic has removed college degree requirements for about 25% of its information technology jobs, replacing them with skills-based criteria such as competence in certain software and technology.

Since doing so, about a third of Medtronic’s new hires have been people without four-year degrees, and a quarter of the medical device company’s promotions have gone to employees without a bachelor’s degree, said Amy Wilson, human resources director on Medtronic’s global talent acquisition team.

It seems clear that institutions of higher education will need to reimagine the way they do things in order to stem the loss of enrollment and avoid cuts in staff and services — or worse. One place to start? Speeding up the process and, presumably, the cost of getting a college degree.

The University of Minnesota Rochester is among the first colleges to pilot an accelerated bachelor’s degree program. It’s launching a health sciences degree program this year, called “Nxt Gen Med,” in which students will take a mix of online and in-person classes year-round, allowing them to graduate in 2½ years instead of four. Students participating in the program will be guaranteed paid internships at the Mayo Clinic.