The conventional wisdom tells us that developing human capital is the key to economic development in the knowledge economy, and that helping more Virginians (and Americans) earn more college certificates and degrees is the key to building human capital. This is a core assumption behind Virginia’s Plan for Higher Education, which aims to make Virginia the best-educated state in the country by 2030, and the Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s Blueprint Virginia 2025, which highlights the necessity of building a talent pipeline, including making Virginia “the top state for talent.”
But Frederick M. Hess and Grant Addison with the American Enterprise Institute warn in a Wall Street Journal op-ed today that the emphasis on churning out college degrees can have an unintended effect: degree inflation. And degree inflation can have a pernicious effect: disparate impact on blacks and Hispanics.
“Some 51% of employers have rejected applicants with the requisite skills and experience simply because they didn’t have a college degree, according to a 2017 Harvard Business School study,” Hess and Addison write. “If current trends continue, the authors found, ‘as many as 6.2 million workers could be affected by degree inflation’ — meaning their lack of a bachelor’s degree could preclude them from qualifying for the same job with another employer.”
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. When practices have a disproportionate impact on minorities in the job selection process, employers must show that any requirements are directly job-related and an accurate predictor of job performance. Given all the legal scrutiny around employment tests, such as IQ tests, possession of a college degree is one of the few proxies for aptitude that doesn’t trigger a risk of litigation.
However, as George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan explained in a Bacon’s Rebellion interview published a week ago, only a small portion of the value of a college degree is what students learn in their classes. Employers regard a college degree mainly as a signal that a job applicant has the intelligence, diligence and social conformity required to earn a degree — all attributes that contribute to making a good employee. If the higher ed system cranks out more students with degrees, he predicted, employers will demand higher degree qualifications — in effect, creating degree inflation.
Hess and Addison also worry about degree inflation and its implications. They write:
In a 2014 survey, Burning Glass Technologies found that employers are increasingly requiring bachelor’s degrees for positions whose current workers do not have one. For example, 65% of job postings for executive assistant and secretary positions call for a degree even though only 19% of people currently employed in such roles hold a degree.
“The Harvard report found that groups with college graduation rates below the national average are disproportionately harmed by the practice,” they write. Smaller percentages of blacks and Hispanics than whites and Asians possess college credentials, squeezing them out of contention for more and more jobs. And with escalating college costs creating an affordability crisis for lower-income Americans, blacks and Hispanics remain disproportionately likely to fail to complete their degree requirements — and take on debilitating student loan debt in the process.
Bacon’s bottom line: If you’re looking for institutional racism in America, this is it. The impetus behind degree inflation isn’t racism, prejudice or a desire to discriminate. As with so many things, degree inflation is driven by the best of motives. But the unintended effect is highly damaging to blacks and Hispanics (as well as to poor whites and the poor of other ethnicities). When everyone has to have a college degree to get a job, those who are poorest, attend the worst schools, and graduate with the most inadequate academic preparation are the biggest losers.
It’s a shame that the social justice warriors don’t get this. Perhaps the myopia stems from the fact that so many SJWs come from academia, making them direct beneficiaries of the degree-inflation phenomenon. It’s much less discomfiting to focus on micro-aggressions or agitate about the statues of Civil War generals than confront the real forces hindering upward mobility for minorities in 21st century America.There are currently no comments highlighted.