Is the college diploma a sign of advanced skills or just a screening technique?

A persistent question about American higher education is what explains the apparent increase in demand for workers who have college credentials.

It could be due to rising skill requirements for jobs, implying that the economy needs a larger number of people who have been through college—at least to the extent that actually imparts the skills that are called for.

Or is it instead due to increasing use of the bachelor’s degree as a screening mechanism? That is, employers don’t want to bother with anyone who has a lower level of educational attainment because there are plenty of presumably better workers with college degrees.

A recent study done by Burning Glass Technologies, a consultant on job recruitment sheds some light on this dispute.

The study, “Moving the Goalposts: How Demand for a Bachelor’s Degree is Reshaping the Workforce,” based on a wide range of mid-level jobs, quantifies a trend that has often been discussed anecdotally. It concludes, “Increasingly, employers are seeking baccalaureate talent for what have been sub-baccalaureate jobs.”

For example, Burning Glass finds that 68 percent of job postings for production supervisors and transportation, storage, and distribution managers now specify that a B.A. degree is required. Among positions for executive secretaries and administrative assistants, 45 percent require a B.A.; for sales representatives and retail supervisors, 56 percent.

Compared with unemployment or the kinds of low-skill labor that many college graduates are now doing, those jobs are pretty good, but they leave you wondering, “Couldn’t the individual do the job as well if he or she had not spent the years and money in getting the degree?”

Half of the job postings for insurance claims clerks, for example, now require a college degree. But just what is there in the usual college curriculum that has anything to do with that work?

For many of the jobs that were included in the study, it is evident that the credential inflation is not due to any change in the nature of the work and the necessary skills. “Rather,” the report states, “private-sector industries appear to be using college credentials as a proxy for higher-caliber workers—and have the money to pay accordingly.”

Money is an important consideration, of course. In some of the jobs, such as office and administrative positions, compensation has increased more than salaries in general. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, such workers have enjoyed a 41 percent increase over the last decade, compared with the national average of 24 percent. Those data seem to support the notion that college pays off, but even if that higher-than-average pay increase for these workers is because of an influx of college-educated individuals (which we don’t know) the cost of many college degrees still makes it a very dubious investment if graduates find themselves doing office work like that.

Another reason why employers are raising their credential requirements, the report suggests, might be that most human resource jobs are now held by individuals with college degrees. “The phenomenon of upcredentialing is particularly strong in the Human Resource occupations and related roles that manage the talent pool,” the authors write, and conclude that those people “are displaying an affinity for similarly qualified talent.” In other words, credential inflation that has swept through HR may have created a bias favoring credential inflation in many other jobs.

The report also shows that in some cases skill requirements for the job actually have increased. “Some occupations are in fact becoming more complex, and that can be seen in the evolution of job requirements,” the authors write.

An example is the job of drafter (previously known as draftsman), where technology has made the work more demanding. The report continues, “As computer-assisted design and other architectural software make the drafting process more efficient, employers are looking for Drafters to bring additional skills and expertise to the workplace . . . . Drafters are becoming more like junior engineers.”

Thus, the survey finds that 39 percent of postings for drafters now state that a college degree is required.

An important question that the report does not address, however, is just what employers are looking for in the college graduates they might choose to interview for drafting or other similar jobs. What courses and majors are helpful if a student wants to be hired as a drafter? Are there certificates or “badges” that a student could acquire that would improve his chances in this field?

For a range of computer-related jobs, specific training programs are more useful than the typical B.A. “The skills needed for these roles . . . are rarely taught in bachelor’s degree programs, so applicants with college degrees may in fact be less directly qualified than their sub-B.A. peers,” the report states.

And that leads to another key finding. Where the “upcredentialing” phenomenon is weakest is in fields where there are reliable indicators of skill other than (and usually much better than) a college degree. In health care, for example, employers can look to independent certification standards, so there is much less inclination to insist upon a B.A.

The two main takeaways from the study are, first, that much of the credential inflation we see in job requirements has nothing to do with needed skills, and, second, that many employers are looking for concrete evidence of skills that prospective workers have, not just a questionable degree.