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What Happens When Employers Decide That University Degrees Are Worthless?

With regard to the title of this post, we may be about to find out. The UK branch of Ernst & Young–one of the world’s top accounting firms and a major (and well-regarded) employer–is reducing the importance of higher education credentials as criteria in hiring. And the company isn’t doing it quietly–the move was trumpeted in an August 3, 2015 press release announcing that they’d “found no evidence to conclude that previous success in higher education correlated with future success in subsequent professional qualifications undertaken.” Instead of academic credentials, the company will emphasize its own assessments.

EY will remove academic qualifications from their entry criteria for their 2016 graduate, undergraduate and school leaver programmes, which open for applications today.

Students will no longer be required to have a minimum of 300 UCAS points (equivalent to 3 B’s) and a 2:1 degree classification to make an application. Instead, EY will use a new and enhanced suite of online ‘strengths’ assessments and numerical tests to assess the potential of applicants for 2016.

The HuffingtonPost UK reported earlier this year that PricewaterhouseCoopers, another large employer, made a similar announcement, wrapped in progressive verbiage.

I don’t know of any major U.S. employers making similar announcements about deemphasizing academic credentials in the hiring process, nor has anybody come out and said that university degrees aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on (though the EY statement comes awfully close). It’s not hard to imagine, though, that the shift in the UK has its counterpart in the U.S.–both countries share similar concerns that academia has become divorced from reality. When even the liberal president of the United States denounces the stultifying political correctness of college campuses, there’s a big damned problem.

And Americans, at least, pay a soaring price for higher “education” that is being left behind not only in its respect for the values of an open society, but also in innovating to meet student needs in a changing world.

My guess is that PricewaterhouseCoopers and EY are only high-profile peeks at a change that is already underway, as employers lose respect for the value of college degrees and substitute other criteria in their hiring process. Some people will decry that as anti-intellectual, but it’s not. Too many jobs have come to require college degrees in recent decades–an expensive and unnecessary hurdle in most cases. When my father became a stock broker back in the 1970s, anybody who could study and sit for the exam was welcome. The later addition of a bachelor’s degree as a requirement did nobody any favors, and dropping it won’t be the end of the world.

And then, maybe, colleges will have to choose between providing actual value to intellectually curious students who want a real education, or else further degenerating into insane asylums for voluntary inmates.

Either way, research and inquiry will continue among people who want to understand and engage with the world. But that sort of activity may have to switch venues.