HR Trend: Degree Creep and the potential for Adverse Impact

by Michael Haberman on February 25, 2013 · 3 comments


Artifically requiring a college degree may result in adverse impact.

Artifically requiring a college degree may result in adverse impact.

There is an HR trend underway that is having an impact on candidates, companies, the unemployment rate and the educational system. I refer to this trend as “degree creep” but it has also been referred to as degree inflation. While temporarily a plus for some companies it may lead to problems in the future including adverse impact discrimination claims.

A definition

In years past the entry level of education need to perform most jobs was a high school education. Then as technology knowledge increased the level of education needed to perform some jobs increased to the college level. Even simple jobs became more complicated and required some education beyond high school. That is a natural evolution of the advance of technology. That is NOT what I mean by degree creep. Degree creep refers to the practice of requiring college degree for a position that does not require that level of education. It refers to the practice of selecting candidates with degrees over candidates that don’t have degrees for positions that do not require that much education. In some cases candidates without experience are selected over experienced candidates solely because they have the degree.

Why is this occurring?

This is happening because it is a “buyer’s market” in employment at the moment in many areas and employers are the buyers. College educated candidates are abundant and in the mind of employers why not take advantage of the situation. Supposedly people with a degree are more career minded (an assumption I am not so sure of) and if they are willing to take a job making $10 an hour why not hire them. For the candidates it is better than being unemployed. According to Catherine Rampell in It Takes a B.A. to Find a Job as a File Clerk the situation has worked well for some these employees who take low level positions to then quickly get promoted. But unfortunately this has led to some employers starting to view non-degreed individuals as lazy and less capable.

The downside of this trend

One of the major downsides of this trend is that it is having an impact on the unemployment rate of non-degreed individuals. According to Rampell “the unemployment rate for workers with no more than a high school diploma is more than twice that for workers with a bachelor’s degree: 8.1 percent versus 3.7 percent.” This may have the result in more people incurring debt by attending college at a time when the cost of obtaining an education is very high. While I am a huge advocate for being educated I am also of the opinion that not every job needs to have a four year degree and not every person needs to attend. For some people it is not the appropriate endeavor.

Adverse impact

Requiring more education for a job than was required got Duke Power in trouble in the 1960’s and was the basis for the landmark lawsuit that defined adverse impact discrimination. In Griggs v. Duke Power a high school education was required for a manual labor job. The thought process could have been very much the same as it is today. If we have someone with a high school degree they may be more ambitious and looking for a career as opposed to someone that doesn’t and who is just looking for a paycheck. They will be better able to advance. The problem was that this line of thought had the effect of excluding black males from getting jobs as shoveling coal since at that time and place few black males had high school degrees. The courts defined this as adverse impact and said that having a requirement that is not job related is potentially discriminatory if it has an adverse impact on a protected minority. I see the same danger in today’s situations.

So beware lest some creative plaintiff attorney takes up the banner for someone who has been denied a job because all they have is a high school degree, yet are denied a job because they do not have a college degree, even though the job doesn’t really need to have it. It will be even worse if they have experience doing the job and are denied solely on the basis of not having a four-year degree.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

jennifer laiahsang March 5, 2013 at 9:24 pm

I think this is a good point that we will likely have to deal with sooner rather than later, especially given the continued shift towards entry level service sector and the growing underemployed….thanks for sharing


Kelly O March 13, 2013 at 12:34 pm

Factor in the ever-rising costs of that college degree and you add a whole other level of complication to the decision to go back to school (especially for adults trying to stay competitive.)


Michael Haberman March 13, 2013 at 1:09 pm

Absolutely. That is why a MOOC, Massive Open Online Course, may be the best alternative for many people, assuming they become more widely accepted.


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