Diversity Recruiting: The Impact of Degree Inflation and Disparity

An increasing number of job postings in the United States are requiring higher levels of education, and many of these are advertisements for what are considered middle-skill jobs, requiring more than a high school diploma but less than a college degree. While college degrees are commonly becoming minimum qualifications to be considered for a job, only one-third of the U.S. adult population has this credential.

Degree Inflation and Degree Disparity

There is a trend called “degree inflation” in job recruitment and advertisements that refers to requiring a college degree for jobs that previously did not require one. In many cases, this practice creates a disadvantage for many workers and has a detrimental effect on protected populations due to the degree disparity.

Degree disparity refers to the differences in the percentages of people who have graduated from college. Requiring education should be carefully considered since fewer female, black, and Hispanic students attain college degrees in the U.S. Young adults who are just entering the workforce are also negatively impacted by nonessential degree requirements.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of African Americans in 2019 who were 25 years of age and older with at least a bachelor’s degree is 26%, and only 19% of Hispanics hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, while 40% of whites and 58% of Asian Americans in this age class have attained this level of education.

Reconsider Job Requirements

Education requirements should be examined closely to determine if it is necessary to have a college degree to do every job at your organization. It’s likely that this is not essential for a wide variety of jobs.

If using a degree as a minimum qualification has the effect of screening out larger numbers of protected groups, then employers may have the difficult task of defending the disparity. This strategy also promotes diversity in your recruiting and hiring efforts and has the potential to decrease inequality in the workplace.

Overlooking Talent - Qualified but Underutilized

Many non-college graduates have obtained necessary job skills through experience. Research conducted by Harvard Business School shows that there is a degree gap in many occupations where job postings for new employees require a college degree while current employees already working in the same jobs may not have a college degree.

Interestingly, surveys show that employers pay college grads significantly more without any additional productivity than non-degree holders in the same positions.

Focus on Skills and Work Experience

Instead, concentrate on experience and skills that are necessary for the job and don’t disproportionately screen out applicants unless that skill is absolutely required.

For example, strength tests may be a legitimate requirement for positions involving physical labor, just as passing a bar exam is essential for attorneys. Skills requirements are likely to pass legal muster since they can be more easily linked to the duties of the job.

Job Selection Procedures

Employers using screening tests or requirements that have a disparate impact on a protected group must be able to prove these are job-related and consistent with business necessity. Job selection procedures need to clearly measure job capability.

In other words, employers should evaluate if their hiring standards are a valid assessment of an applicant’s ability to learn or perform the job. Recruiters should cast a wider net to consider applicants from different sources that may help them locate qualified, experienced workers.


This should not be construed as legal advice, and Cadient Talent recommends that employers consult with their own attorneys. For more information about the disparate impact of educational degree requirements, you can also refer to a white paper drafted for the National Bureau of Economic Research and an opinion piece from the Wall Street Journal.


For more information from Cadient on this topic, refer to our Gain Hiring Equality page