Could Steve Jobs have worked for your company? At many, the answer is no. That's a problem.

For too long, companies have required college degrees for positions that don't require college-level skills.

Chris Schlak

Steve Jobs was a failure – at least by academic standards. The co-founder of Apple, who revolutionized the way we learn, communicate and connect, dropped out of college after only one semester on campus.

If you were the manager of a tech firm, would you hire someone with Jobs' lack of academic qualifications?

The answer at many companies, tech and otherwise, is no. For too long, companies have required college degrees for positions that don't require college-level skills. 

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Most entry-level jobs require a college degree

According to a report by Cengage Group, "Nearly two-thirds (62%) of employers still require a degree for entry-level jobs." 

A study by Joseph Fuller and Manjari Raman of Harvard Business School found that "in 2015, 67% of production supervisor job postings asked for a college degree, while only 16% of employed production supervisors had one." That's a 51 percentage point gap.

But American companies haven't always been so focused on academic attainment. A little known U.S. Supreme Court decision, Griggs vs. Duke Power Co., handed down in 1971, might have inadvertently paved the way for employers to require college completion for many jobs by discouraging on-the-job competency tests.

In this Jan. 24, 1984, file photo, Steve Jobs, chairman of the board of Apple Computer, leans on the new "Macintosh" personal computer following a shareholder's meeting in Cupertino, Calif.

Before the 1970s, companies commonly required employees to take aptitude tests to be eligible for promotions. But Griggs vs. Duke changed that practice.

The case involved Willie Griggs, a Black man, who sued Duke Power for violating Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by requiring a high school diploma and a minimum score on two aptitude tests to attain higher positions in the company.

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Griggs argued that the requirements disproportionately discriminated against African Americans. The court unanimously agreed that it did.

Soon after the decision, businesses chose to end job testing for higher positions because of the potential legal consequences. Instead, more businesses began to require college degrees as a substitute for aptitude tests, to the detriment of the working class.

Workers could at one time demonstrate their prowess on the job and pass a test to show they were ready for promotion. Now, they need years of college classes and a decent GPA just to be considered for an entry-level job.

Degree requirements have hurt upward mobility

And that has made it harder for lower-income Americans to land higher-paying jobs and move into the middle class.

In 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for Americans with a high school diploma was 6.2%. People with a bachelor’s degree had a jobless rate of 3.5%. The median weekly income for high school graduates was $809 – a salary of $42,000 a year. For college graduates, the median weekly salary was $1,334 – or $69,000 a year.

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Despite the Supreme Court's intentions with the Griggs ruling, the end of aptitude testing and the rise in college degree requirements has disproportionately hurt Black Americans, who are less likely to hold a college degree.

Thankfully, companies are starting to eliminate college degree requirements for middle-skill and high-skill jobs, according to a study from Harvard and Emsi Burning Glass.

Tech companies, in particular, seem to be leading this change. The study found that "only 26% of Accenture’s Software QA Engineer postings specify a degree requirement, and 29% of IBM’s."

 Accenture established an apprenticeship program in 2016, and the vast majority of the apprentices, 80%, joined the company without a four-year college degree.

Accenture CEO Jimmy Etheredge told CNBC: "A person’s educational credentials are not the only indicators of success, so we advanced our approach to hiring to focus on skills, experiences and potential."

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Etheredge is right. Educational credentials are not the only indicators of success.

The Supreme Court needs to revisit its ruling on Griggs v. Duke so companies can return to using aptitude tests without fear of excessive lawsuits. A wider range of companies also should make more use of apprenticeships and paid internships to expand their pool of potential permanent employees.

The American dream should not be unavailable for those who don't have the time or the money to complete a four-year college degree. 

Chris Schlak is an Opinion fellow for USA TODAY. He graduated with a degree in government from The University of Texas at Austin in May. He founded and edited The Texas Horn, an Intercollegiate Studies Institute student publication at UT Austin. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisSchlak

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