Blacks Most Hurt by Creeping Credentialism

(p. A15) Nonessential degree requirements aren’t race-neutral. They embed into the labor market the legacy of black exclusion from the U.S. education system—namely, the antiliteracy laws that made it illegal for blacks to learn to read, the separate and unequal schools that kept them from catching up, and the limited progress since then on policies designed to remedy racial discrimination.

This spring, we and six other colleagues wrote a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper that questioned the fundamental assumption undergirding the proliferation of degree requirements: that workers without four-year degrees who earn low wages are low-skilled.

For the 71 million U.S. workers who have a high-school diploma but not a four-year degree, we used the skill profile of their current jobs as a proxy for their employability for higher-wage work. Their job experience suggests they are skilled through alternative routes, so we call them by the acronym STARs. They make up 60% of the active U.S. workforce.

Our research found that 16 million STARs have the skills for high-wage work, defined as earning more than twice the national median. Yet 11 million of them are currently employed in low-wage or middle-wage work. This suggests an extraordinary market failure: U.S. companies are systematically overlooking talent.

. . .

Our research suggests there are changes companies can make to address this problem:

Hire for skills and work experience, not degrees. Rather than using the degree requirement as a default, employers should examine the skills that their jobs require and then use skill requirements for job postings, screenings and assessments. IBM adopted this type of skills-based approach with its New Collar initiative, launched in 2017.

. . .

Black workers face extraordinary barriers to economic mobility. By valuing skills over degrees, companies can improve the way the labor market functions for black STARs—a necessary step to ensure that the economy works for all.

For the full commentary, see:

Peter Q. Blair and Shad Ahmed. “The Disparate Racial Impact of Requiring a College Degree.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, June 29, 2020): A15.

(Note: ellipses added; bullet point and italics in original.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date June 28, 2020, and has the title “A Coronavirus Vaccine: Faster, Please.”)

The NBER working paper mentioned above is:

Blair, Peter Q., Tomas G. Castagnino, Erica L. Groshen, Papia Debroy, Byron Auguste, Shad Ahmed, Fernando Garcia Diaz, and Cristian Bonavida. “Searching for Stars: Work Experience as a Job Market Signal for Workers without Bachelor’s Degrees.” In NBER Working Papers: National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc., March 2020.

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