Why education requirements in job postings are mostly dumb

There are lots of jobs that have entirely legitimate educational requirements. Doctors, accountants, lawyers... I'm thinking professions where you learn the trade in school, at a program that is responsive to the needs of its professional community. 

I attended the College of Idaho (go Yotes!) and got a great education which culminated with a degree in political economy. While I would definitely agree with my professors that a liberal arts education is a great preparatory for living in the world as a person, there's no particular profession that those courses really prepared me for. I improved my writing and learned a bit about political analysis and a lot about myself, but it would be silly to think that my program taught me how to use Quickbooks or negotiate with vendors or to write decent fundraising copy. That's not what those programs are for. 

Miriam's Kitchen is, from everything I've heard, a great organization. They try to balance direct service with advocacy for political and systemic change to reduce homelessness in the DC area. They seem really thoughtful about how race intersects with homelessness, and are thoughtful about how their organization lives up to its values internally and externally. 

Which is why I was pretty disappointed when I stumbled on their Operations Manager job posting, which included an experience requirement of 2-3 years of general office work with a degree, or 5-7 without:


This is a job that's familiar to anyone who has worked at a small or midsize organization. It's an operations catch-all; a little bit of HR, a little bit of finance and accounting, a little bit of office management, and a little bit of being an executive assistant to the c-suite. It's a job I've had before. 

Especially given that the position is part of a 3 person team, it's baffling to me that this otherwise good and thoughtful group thinks that having a college degree is an appropriate stand-in for this kind of work. The organization is telling you you might be a good fit for this job if you've done 2 years worth of unrelated internships out of school, just the same as if you've done 7 years of administrative and HR work. Those are radically different universes of candidates, but Miriam's Kitchen blithely lumps them together. 

It's fine if you really can imagine good candidates coming out of either background! For this type of position, I totally believe it. But this position is also specifically signalling that if you don't have a bachelor's degree that is probably completely unrelated to the work, they don't even want to talk to you unless you've been doing (again, possibly totally unrelated) work for at least 5 years. 

Why does this bother me so much, you might ask? Well, the first is simply that it's lazy. They're requiring a degree (or, at least, significantly penalizing candidates without one) that has nothing to do with the job. There's no significant evidence that simply having a degree is a reliable predictor for competence or work ethic.  Miriam's Kitchen, like many other organizations, simply feels at some gut level that people with a degree are better at this sort of job than people without. 

This goes beyond lazy and into a pernicious realm. There are tons of reasons people don't go to college, but I'll put it costs tens of thousands of goddamn dollars right at the top. Which means that it tends to be less accessible, as an institution, to people who don't have that kind of money. Those people are disproportionately women and people of color. The end conclusion is that if you prize a degree for no reason, you're unintentionally giving white men a leg up in your application process. Which, however you feel about affirmative action or quotas or whatever, most people do not specifically want to do. 

But, you might well ask, they're still making it clear that you can apply without a degree, if you've proven yourself. What's wrong with that? Well, mainly that they're specifically warning well-qualified people away from applying to the job. And that has an impact. Why not simply state that they want at least 2 years of professional office experience? It's still not ideal, but its better than sending a signal to an administrative professional with 4 years of highly relevant experience and no college degree that they're not welcome to apply for your job, which they're certainly at least as qualified for as someone with a college degree and completely unrelated experience. 

This is important because employers are some of the most powerful institutions in our capitalist system. When we talk about things like systemic and institutionalized racism and sexism, this is what we're talking about. This is a good organization that works with people of all races, sexes, and creeds who find themselves in poverty and homelessness. I'm sure they have no intention of discouraging anyone from an oppressed background from applying for their open positions, but all it took was one ill-thought-through line in the job posting for that to happen. In aggregate, across our employment system, lines like that create racial, gender, and other discrepancies in employment rates, and they help ensure that your organization is more homogeneous than it needs to be. How will your organization innovate and create the services your communities need tomorrow if you're discouraging oppressed people from applying and being part of the solution? 

(Of course, there are other things I'd do to improve the equity score on this posting. For instance, all jobs should have the salary range posted. Why waste everyone's time if I need $x annual salary, and you're never gonna go higher than $x minus $25K? But that's a post for another day.)