Should Employers Be Prohibited from Asking Applicants About College Credentials?

Court decisions can have unintended consequences just as statutes or regulations can. The Supreme Court’s 1971 decision in Griggs v. Duke Power has had a huge impact on higher education, giving the “college for everyone” movement a great but unanticipated boost.

The problem is that the lack of a college degree now operates against people just as the lack of a high school diploma did in Griggs. People are shut out of many jobs not because they lack ability but just because they lack educational credentials.

In brief, the facts of Griggs: Duke Power Co. had a policy that restricted workers who hadn’t graduated from high school to the most menial jobs, such as janitorial work. The only way around that obstacle was to pass an aptitude test. Griggs and other African-American workers sued, arguing that the company’s requirements were discriminatory under the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Unanimously, the Court agreed. It held that employers could not insist that job applicants have such educational credentials or have passed tests unless they could demonstrate that those requirements were reasonably related to the work. If a company’s educational or testing qualifications had a “disparate impact” on minority groups, the firm was in violation of the law.

In 2008, the Pope Center published “Griggs v. Duke Power: Implications for College Credentialing” by Bryan O’Keefe and Richard Vedder. The authors explained that many employers, faced with the fact that aptitude testing had become legally hazardous and requiring high school diplomas was a red flag, began looking to college degrees as a way of screening out applicants they didn’t want to bother with.

Griggs turned the college degree into a ‘credential.’ The content of the education did not change, but the degree—the sheepskin—became a necessary first step for a decent job,” wrote O’Keefe and Vedder. Businesses increasingly made the possession of a college degree (often, the substance of the degree not mattering) the first obstacle for applicants.

Perhaps oddly, there were no challenges like Griggs to this new job requirement and we have now reached the point where college degrees are required for people applying for such mundane jobs as sales representative, rental car agent, and production supervisor. I’m not saying that those are easy jobs, merely noting that learning them doesn’t call for any advanced academic study in preparation.

Traditionally, such jobs have been filled by people with no more than a high school education. Now, they’re closed unless you show a college degree on your resume. (For an in-depth study on this, see Moving the Goal Posts: How Demand for a Bachelor’s Degree is Reshaping the Workforce.)

Quite a few people see that this “credential inflation” has created a serious problem.

One of them is law professor and longtime critic of America’s college mania, Glenn Harlan Reynolds. In his June 6 USA Today column, Reynolds advocates “banning the college box.” That is, prevent employers from asking job applicants if they have a college degree, just as regulations in some cases ban them from asking applicants if they have a criminal record.

Reynolds writes, “College is sold as a source of social mobility because getting an education improves your chance of getting a job. But there’s another way of looking at things: College isn’t so much a source of mobility as the lack of college is a barrier to moving up, a barrier that disproportionately affects the poor.”

He is absolutely correct. As I argued in this piece, people who don’t have the money, time, or academic ability to get through college are being confined to a shrinking and highly competitive segment of the labor market where the pay is low and chances for advancement are limited. (That, incidentally, explains much of the apparent “college earnings premium.”)

The justices in Griggs thought they were simultaneously applying the Civil Rights Act and helping to make life more fair for people who didn’t have high school credentials or good test-taking abilities. Little did they suspect that a consequence of their ruling decades later would be to keep such individuals from having a chance at numerous jobs just because they lack a college degree.

And the logic of the case seems every bit as applicable to college degree requirements as to the sort of job requirements the Court struck down in Griggs. If companies violated the Civil Rights Act when they set arbitrary and seemingly irrelevant educational requirements for employment in 1971, why are they allowed to use the absence of college credentials to screen out people today?

With many politicians demanding that other employment “boxes” (in particular, whether an individual has a criminal record) be banned, it seems reasonable to say that the college degree box should also be banned. Reynolds, who is about as far from a leftist as you can go, writes “So if you want equality, the best thing to do is to ban employers from asking students where they went to school and, perhaps, even if they went to college at all.”

That argument might sound compelling, but we should resist it. Although I would like to see the credential mania broken so that young Americans don’t have to spend years of their lives and lots of money to get college degrees merely so they can have a chance at non-menial jobs, another governmental ban isn’t the way to go about it.

For one thing, it’s overkill to tell employers that, under threat of legal penalty, they may never inquire about postsecondary education or refuse to consider job applicants who don’t have what they regard as necessary educational attributes. Screening based on education can be perfectly rational. An investment firm, for example, has good reason to limit applications for analysts to those who have majored in finance and earned their degrees.

Instead of instituting a new prohibition in the labor market, the right policy is to open the market up, creating new and better means for employers to decide which applicants are worth considering. Congress should amend the Civil Rights Act to state that it is not “employment discrimination” for a firm to rely upon any kind of testing, whether or not it has a “disparate impact” on any group.

In the 2009 case Ricci v. DeStefano, the Supreme Court backed somewhat away from Griggs, ruling that the New Haven Fire Department should not have discarded a fair test for promotion just because the results weren’t racially balanced. Justice Kennedy wrote, “Fear of litigation alone cannot justify an employer’s reliance on race to the detriment of individuals who passed the examinations and qualified for promotions.”

Congress should take away that fear of litigation completely. Doing so would help the large number of poorer Americans who are shut out of many jobs because they lack college credentials.

Doing that would have a dramatic impact on colleges. Many students who aren’t serious about advanced learning but only want a credential to get by the degree screening would do something other than enroll in college right after high school. Without them, schools could and would do a better job for those students who really want higher education.