The Corner

Education

What to Do about Credential Inflation?

Millions of Americans have to spend a lot of time and money in search of college degrees that are required for jobs that could be done by people with only high-school educations. Millions more are shut out from a chance at getting jobs they could do simply because they lack the college credentials that employers increasingly use to screen out “unfit” applicants.

This problem of degree inflation is very wasteful, but can anything be done to stop it before we reach the point where you need a Ph.D. to compete for lawn-maintenance jobs? That’s my topic in today’s Martin Center article.

Credential inflation was at least in part catalyzed by the Supreme Court’s 1971 decision in Griggs v. Duke Power, which held that it could be illegal for an employer to require educational levels (in that case, a high-school diploma) where that requirement had a disparate impact on minority applicants.

But if that’s the law regarding high-school diplomas, shouldn’t it also be the law for college credentials? That would seem to follow, but no case has ever successfully (or, to my knowledge, unsuccessfully either) challenged the legality of college-degree requirements on the grounds that they have a disparate impact — which they certainly do.

In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Rick Hess and Grant Addison of AEI advocated litigation to break the upward ratchet of educational requirements. That could do it. I find that prospect troubling, however, because it would further erode freedom of contract. Employers should be free to determine their employment standards even if they seem irrational.

It would be far better for business leaders to see that they are causing a problem with needless demands for educational credentials and devise better means of assessing job applicants. Some firms have started doing exactly that, such as the Fortune 500 logistics company Expeditors.

Credential inflation is a problem caused mainly by the government with its subsidies for college, but the solution can and should come from the private sector.

George Leef — George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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