On February 1st, Boyden Gray PLLC partner Jonathan Berry joined Oren Cass and Chris Griswold for an episode on the American Compass Podcast to discuss the “bachelor’s fad”—our over reliance in the labor market on bachelor’s degrees—and how public policy should respond.

Cass and Griswold noted that recent research has found that 15.7 million workers are boxed out of eligibility for middle-skill jobs by college degree requirements, which often have little to do with the applicant’s ability to perform. In 2015, for instance, just 16% of employed production supervisors had a college degree, while 67% of the job postings for that role required one. This, Cass and Griswold argue, highlight the scale of ‘degree inflation’ found in the American labor market, and mismatch between college graduates and degree requirements. “We are in fact overproducing college graduates even as we are locking out people without college degrees.” 

Citing his experience as former acting assistant secretary for the Department of Labor, Berry agreed with this analysis:

This [mismatch] is something that really came to my attention working in the Trump administration where we were looking pretty seriously at how to get more people into the labor market, how to get more people into a position to have family and community sustaining jobs… It became really clear that college and the college degree barrier was a huge issue.

While this mismatch can be explained by a variety of factors, Berry suggested that an oft underlooked cause is “the inability of employers to use other kinds of screening mechanisms” which, he explained, is caused in part by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Griggs v. Duke Power:

Historically, I think what happened here is that [] the Supreme Court developed a disparate impact theory of liability under Title VII… in [Griggs] both a [] high school diploma requirement as well as an aptitude test… were subject to scrutiny under a disparate impact theory, [] despite the fact that Title VII expressly has a carve out protecting employment tests in particular.

What’s interesting is that you start to see employment tests, which as a screening mechanism are far from perfect, but have the major benefit of not imposing these massive costs. The cost on an applicant to go through an employment test is the time it takes to fill out the multiple choice…not the time and money it takes to go through four, or more likely six, years of college.

It is now the case ever since the ‘70s that an employer who wants to impose one of those tests has to do a tremendous amount of what’s called ‘validation,’ showing that there is a strong enough relationship between the test and the job related quality that the test is supposedly going for…That validation requirement, that extra burden to avoid disparate impact, was never really consistently put on college degree requirements…there’s an unequal treatment of these screening mechanisms.

In their policy brief, Cass and Griswold propose to ban these “needless degree requirements” by “prohibiting employers from preemptively rejecting applicants simply because they don’t have a college degree.”

The full podcast episode is available here.