How Civil Rights Law Could Affect Degree Inflation and Discrimination


It's a requirement that is most often seen on job application pages: bachelor's degree. Even for middle-skill types of jobs, like secretary positions, employers will often throw on the requirement of a bachelor's degree, some kind, as a way to handle the selection process. This kind of emphasis on degrees is one of the contributing factors in degree inflation, and may even have disproportionate impacts on minority Americans.

Education scholars Frederick Hess and Grant Addison believe that this "degree inflation and discrimination" phenomenon may be a pressing civil rights issue, especially given the ruling of a Supreme Court case from 1971, Griggs vs. Duke Power. In that case, the Court unanimously issued a ruling on the effects of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on minority groups.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. In Griggs v. Duke Power (1971) the Supreme Court unanimously interpreted this to mean that when minority groups are disproportionately affected—or suffer a “disparate impact”—from the selection process, employers must show that any requirements are directly job-related and an accurate predictor of job performance. This standard, which Congress made explicit in 1991, applies to any selection procedure used for employment decisions, including educational requirements. Employers that require IQ tests, for example, must use approved tests and justify IQ thresholds.

Some states and localities have even stricter standards, but the federal standard applies to all employers. However, when it comes to college degrees, things are seemingly totally different.

Employers presume that a college degree confirms the baseline verbal and written skills required for many jobs, and colleges are known to game admissions criteria to favor minority groups. As a result, college degrees have a patina of intellectual capacity and nondiscrimination—likely why their use by employers has never been legally challenged.

The result of this is that more high school students feel the need to get a college degree, any degree, just so that they can qualify for these positions. Even if the work itself is not a skilled type of labor, the degree requirement on the part of employers pushes students into college and ends up devaluing the degree for many other people.

One overlooked problem here is also the fact that this requirement may have disproportionate impacts on minority Americans. If that's the case, it could open the door for litigation against the bachelor's degree requirements under the Civil Rights Act.

When determining disparate impact, enforcement agencies often rely on the “four-fifths” rule of thumb: If the selection rate for any race, sex or ethnic group is less than four-fifths that of the group with the highest selection rate, disparate impact is likely. Some 61% of Asians in the labor force, age 25 and up, have a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Just under 40% of whites have degrees, compared with 29% of blacks and 20% of Hispanics. Under the four-fifths rule, college-degree requirements disproportionately affect white workers when compared with Asians, and black and Hispanic workers when compared with whites and Asians.

In the Griggs decision, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that diplomas are "useful servants ... but they are not to become masters of reality.” That's sadly the case for many job-seekers today. In Hess and Addison's assessment, the time for litigation and advocacy is now to change this.

Is this a major Civil Rights issue? Is litigation warranted? Share your thoughts with us!