States are leading the effort to remove degree requirements from government jobs

People standing at municipal office reception and talking to a receptionist. Receptionist assisting people standing at front desk.
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Over the past two years, more than 20 states have expanded access to state jobs through a simple move: assessing or removing bachelor’s degree requirements. With state, local, and federal governments employing 15% of the U.S. workforce, these actions are of enormous consequence, especially for “STARs,” or workers who are skilled through alternative routes. STARs—who have gained their skills through community college, the military, partial college, certification programs, and, most commonly, on-the-job training—represent over half of the nation’s workforce, and currently occupy approximately 2 million state jobs.

Government leaders see removing bachelor’s degree requirements as critical to meeting their hiring needs and public service delivery obligations. And at a time when states are struggling to fill a high number of open roles, removing these requirements can attract a larger pool of talent.

Many states already have laws or policies that forbid discrimination based on educational attainment. But in practice, hiring patterns have favored degrees, and the composition of the state workforce reflects this. While they comprise half of the workforce, STARs fill only 36% of state jobs—representing a gap of 1 million good state jobs for STARs nationwide. The explicit commitment to removing degree requirements is a signal to STARs that they are welcome to apply.

Further, these actions are meant to build a state workforce that reflects the community it serves. Historically, government employment has been used to improve economic equity, providing increased economic opportunities for members of historically disadvantaged groups (notably women and Black workers). In recent decades, however, the bias toward credentialing has resulted in the inadvertent exclusion of STARs, with disproportionate consequences. When a bachelor’s degree is required for a position, employers automatically screen out almost 80% of Latino or Hispanic workers and nearly 70% of Black, veteran, and rural workers. Increased STAR hiring will help correct this inequity.

It is still too early to measure the impact of these changes on hiring behavior, as it will take time while hiring numbers slowly accumulate through job turnover and new positions. Yet we can already see signs that the effort is bearing fruit. In the first quarter of this year, more than 20 states made a yearlong commitment to focus on skills-based hiring through the National Governors Association’s Skills in the States Community of Practice. As one of the lead partners, our organization—Opportunity@Work—supports states through peer learning to prepare and make action plans for the organizational changes needed to implement skills-based practices, which will ultimately improve hiring and advancement outcomes for STARs.

We also see changes in state job postings. We analyzed two years of data on jobs that paid over the national median wage and were posted by all the states that took action to remove degree requirements by April 2023. Our findings show that in the 12 months prior to these state actions, 51.1% of roles explicitly listed a bachelor’s degree as a requirement. In the 12 months following, that percentage fell to 41.8%—a nearly 10-point shift. The largest shifts occurred in job postings for roles in management, IT, administration, and human resources—all occupations in which STARs have been underrepresented in the public sector compared to the private sector. For example, in state governments, 69% of general and operations managers hold a bachelor’s degree, while only 45% do in the private sector.

State leaders view these actions as a critical first step. “We are creating opportunities for everyone, not just those with higher education,” said Melissa Walker of the Colorado Department of Personnel and Administration. “We want to draw on all kinds of experience.” Colorado has pragmatically focused on policy implementation and behavior change; in addition to updates to agency rules and regulations, its executive order focused on a transition to skills-based hiring as the norm for Colorado human resources, including funding for the training of hiring managers and development of a skills-based hiring toolkit. The state’s Department of Personnel and Administration is providing training and resources for human resources teams across state agencies, enabling each to make the necessary changes in their processes and procedures. Resources include a new job description template designed to identify skills—a simple tool that promotes skills-first thinking and behavior change at the hiring manager level.

Culture and systems change both take time. Adjusting common processes and procedures—as well as attitudes and behavior—is challenging, especially in a large, decentralized state government. Yet more than 20 states have begun this hard work. This month, bolstered by these early successes, Opportunity@Work is proud to launch the STARs Public Sector Hub to support these states and others on their skills-based journeys and build the public workforce to meet this moment.


  • Footnotes
    1. Opportunity@Work analysis of the 2022 one-year American Community Survey, IPUMS. The sample is limited to workers ages 25 and older, and the estimate is based on increasing STAR representation in a state’s government jobs to match STAR representation in the state’s labor force as a whole.
    2. Opportunity@Work analysis of job postings data from the Lightcast Job Postings API from 2022 to 2024.
    3. Opportunity@Work analysis of the 2022 one-year American Community Survey, IPUMS.