The worrisome trend of so many jobs requiring a four-year degree

Not all successful and well-paying careers require four-year degrees, as the Center’s “Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree” project has widely highlighted, but many of today’s job listings stipulate a college degree as a minimum education requirement.

The rise in demand of bachelor’s degrees for jobs that previously didn’t require them is worrisome. And it’s not because the skillsets have changed or the jobs have necessarily become more complicated or demanding. Rather, employers are defaulting to using a four-year degree as a proxy for a candidate’s range and depth of skills. This degree inflation is a barrier to employment, it disenfranchises qualified, middle-skill workers, and it restricts employers’ access to a wider pool of talent, as I previously wrote about here.

Nearly two-thirds of employers have admitted to rejecting applicants with the required skills and experience simply because they didn’t have a college degree, according to American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick Hess.

The root cause of degree inflation dates back to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Hess continues.

Employers couldn’t discriminate against job applicants on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, but it did, however, allow employers to use professionally developed hiring tests as long as they weren’t designed, intended or used to discriminate.

The Supreme Court unanimously interpreted this to mean that when a hiring process disproportionately affects minority groups, or has a “disparate impact,” employers must show that any requirements are directly related to the job itself. This disparate impact standard, which Congress made federal law, applies to all criteria used to higher employees, including educational requirements.

In turn, risk averse employers have become increasingly reliant on college degree requirements as a quick and easy way to screen applicants while avoiding the legal pitfalls that accompany other employee tests. For employers, the logic is simple. A college degree is an easy-to-read signal that an applicant has the ability to turn and work, sit still for long periods, take direction, and has the baseline verbal and written skills required for most jobs.

But the indiscriminate degree requirements carry obvious discriminatory implications, Hess concludes, because they hurt communities of color with lower college graduation rates and leave the high cost of degree inflation to fall heavily on low-income individuals and the working class.

What can be done? “Policymakers, employers, and colleges should forge alternative paths to a degree for those who lack the money, time or interest to do so within the structures of the current system,” Hess says. “Policymakers also need to … ensure the degrees are only required for jobs that clearly demonstrate the need for them. While these goals could be reached by…increasing support for college alternatives, like apprenticeships and non-degree programs, advocacy and legal action are likely required to spark necessary change.”

This is not to say that getting a four-year degree is “bad,” or that a young person should be dissuaded from pursuing one if that is his or her dream. But a person’s ability to enter the workforce and access a successful career path should not be determined solely by the presence or lack of a four-year degree. Check out the Center’s new round of videos that capture the inspiring stories of young Minnesotans who pursued alternative educational paths and training programs to get a great job.