How ‘Degree Discrimination’ Can Affect Feds’ Pay

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As long as the majority of federal positions require degrees, opening up opportunities to pursue higher education will be key to creating a more diverse workforce.

The topic of “degree discrimination” recently made headlines, but the reality is when it comes to compensation—particularly for government workers—having a degree makes a critical difference. According to the results of the 2021 ClearanceJobs Compensation Report, the difference between a high school diploma and a bachelor’s degree was more than $20,000. Respondents with a high school diploma only earned average compensation of $77,884; respondents with a bachelor’s degree earned average compensation of $101,921; and those who added to their education with a master’s degree earned average compensation of $123,101.

“With many federal government positions having degree requirements, it’s no surprise that the national security workforce boasts education and compensation levels above the national average,” said Evan Lesser, founder and president of “Working in specialized fields typically means specialized education requirements built into the job listing or contract requirements. With demand for talent high, having those degrees does pay a premium, and signals to employers and hiring managers that a baseline of skills exists.”

The number of cleared professionals with a bachelor’s degree is similar to the national average across other industries, with 37% of cleared professionals having a bachelor’s degree, compared to 32% nationwide. Where national security workers stand out is in their pursuit of advanced degrees—29% of cleared professionals hold an advanced degree, compared to the 13% national average.

Degree Requirements and Diversity in National Security

As the nation’s largest employer, the federal government has a key role in promoting diversity within its positions. A recently signed executive order is focused on advancing diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility within the federal government. It currently notes that colleges can provide a recruiting ground for diversity employment. The struggle for many minorities is getting their foot in the door, however, particularly when it comes to advanced degrees. That’s why some organizations focused on advancing the national security workforce are also focusing on advancing college opportunities for diverse candidates.

“Diversity of perspectives, experiences, and ways of looking at a problem are vital to our national security. Yet at times our community has struggled to leverage diverse talent streams,” said Intelligence and National Security Alliance and INSA Foundation President Suzanne Wilson Heckenberg. “The INSA Foundation seeks to address this gap by expanding opportunities and access to vital career resources. Through undergrad and graduate scholarships for underrepresented communities, myriad mentoring opportunities, and programming focused on the future IC workforce, our foundation helps a new generation of leaders find fulfilling mission-critical careers in the national security workforce.”

Education can be a critical driver of social mobility. And as long as the majority of federal positions continue to require degrees, opening up opportunities for diverse candidates to pursue higher education will be key to creating a more diverse workforce. Fortunately for individuals in the Washington metro, the region offers a large number of colleges and universities to choose from – many of them with their own strengths in diversity recruitment. 

“Companies want to hire a diversity of talent because they know diversity fuels innovation,” said Liza Wilson Durant, associate provost for strategic initiatives and community engagement at George Mason University, and director of the Northern Virginia CCI Node. George Mason is the most diverse university in the state of Virginia and the 15th most diverse college in the nation. 

Education isn’t the only path to higher compensation but it’s one of the most universal. Regardless of industry or experience, more education means more money. And with higher percentages of national security workers who have advanced degrees, your higher degree will find a good home with a national security career. Find out more about how education affects national security compensation in our full report on the Power of Education in Cleared Compensation.