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the Paper Ceiling

Millions of workers with in-demand skills and experience, overlooked for higher-wage jobs because they don’t have a bachelor’s degree. Companies stuck on a talent treadmill, desperate to build a reliable pipeline of skilled workers. Two allies separated by an insidious and invisible barrier. Now the enemy has a name. The paper ceiling.

the Paper Ceiling:

(n) the invisible barrier that comes at every turn for workers without a bachelor’s degree.

See also: no alumni network, biased algorithms, degree screens, stereotypes, and misconceptions.

A labor market out of balance

Before the Paper Ceiling

Consider this. More than 70 million workers in the U.S. don’t have a college degree - that’s half the workforce. Not that long ago, these workers, now known as STARs for Skilled Through Alternative Routes, provided companies with a reliable pipeline of skilled talent. In exchange, companies provided a pathway to upward economic mobility for STARs. Together, STARs and companies built a thriving economy where both sides prospered.

An Invisible Barrier

Today, STARs and the companies who seek their skills and experience find themselves on opposite sides of an invisible barrier - the paper ceiling - separated by degree screens, algorithms, stereotypes, and even professional networks. The result has been a severe decline in STARs’ upward mobility, matched by a severe talent shortage as companies struggle to fill millions of 21st century jobs with skilled talent.

Restoring Balance

But the paper ceiling is not a force of nature beyond our control. It is the sum of institutional and individual choices that prioritized hiring shortcuts over real skills. Now, a movement has begun. Workers and companies uniting to create a new and more equitable future of work in which skills matter more than what’s on paper. A future that is back in balance, when both STARs and employers can thrive again. A future that starts by working together to tear the paper ceiling and see the STARs beyond it.



of New Jobs

Between 2012 and 2019, 69% of new jobs created were in occupations which require a bachelor’s degree or higher for entry. This left only 31% of new jobs available to the 50% of the workforce who are STARs. 

How did this happen? Research by Grads of Life, Accenture, and the Harvard Business School found as many as 90% of large companies use some form of automated applicant tracking system to screen resumes, filtering out about half of all applications. That same research revealed that more than 60% of employers rejected otherwise qualified candidates simply because they did not have a bachelor’s degree. 

The college degree that was once a bridge to opportunity has become a drawbridge that gets pulled up if you don’t have a bachelor’s degree.


Million Jobs Lost

In the year 2000, STARs held 54% of “Gateway” and “Destination” jobs – jobs that have traditionally provided wage growth for STARs. By 2020, they held just 46% of those jobs, representing a loss of access to 7.4 million good jobs.

Nearly half of the 7.4 million jobs lost to STARs are among 30 common jobs that employers routinely fill. STARs currently hold at least 20% of the positions in each of these jobs, demonstrating that they have the skills required. By screening them out employers are missing out on a massive pipeline of skilled workers - exacerbating their hiring needs and ultimately hurting their bottom line.


The Paper Ceiling Disproportionately Affects STARs

When employers screen for a bachelor’s degree they exclude the majority of Black, Hispanic, rural, and veteran workers. Without attention to STARs, corporate diversity efforts simply cannot succeed.


of Blacks


of Hispanics


of rural workers


of veterans


of Workers

In a world without a paper ceiling, two people with equal talent should have equal access to opportunity. Unfortunately, when it comes to finding a job, who you know often matters more than what you know. LinkedIn calls this aspect of the paper ceiling “the Network Gap.” 

LinkedIn’s own research found that 70% of workers get hired at companies where they already have a connection. This research also showed that a worker’s background can determine the strength of their network. For instance, a worker is up to 12x more likely to have a strong network if they live in an affluent area, went to a top school, and work for a prestigious company.



of Hiring Managers

Research by Opportunity@Work found that over half of managers with a bachelor’s degree overestimate the number of workers who have degrees. That’s double the level of managers who are STARs, revealing some of the misperceptions that contribute to the paper ceiling. 

Among managers who overestimate the prevalence of bachelor’s degree holders, the research found a higher prioritization of bachelor’s degrees in their hiring decisions than among their peers who have an accurate picture of labor market composition. For instance, the majority of managers with a bachelor’s degree believe having a bachelor’s degree is important to getting a good job (50%) and to getting a high-paying job (58%).


the Paper Ceiling

Workers with experience, skills, and diverse perspectives – held back by a silent limitation.

It’s time to tear the paper ceiling and see the world beyond it.

I pledge to shatter stereotypes and misconceptions and to see people for all of their experiences, skills, and diverse perspectives.

I pledge to recognize the untapped potential of the 70+ million American workers who are STARs – Skilled Through Alternative Routes – so they can flourish.

I pledge to tear the paper ceiling, to see the world beyond it, and to let STARs shine.

Sign the pledge to tear the paper ceiling

Let’s send a clear message that it’s time to tear the
paper ceiling.

Thanks for signing the pledge.

You’ve taken the first step in tearing the paper ceiling. Stay tuned for important updates, information and stories related to the campaign.

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See the world beyond the paper ceiling

Whether you’re a STAR, an employer, a workforce advocate, or anyone seeking to create a more equitable future, you can help tear the paper ceiling and see the world beyond it.