George Leef’s latest Forbes column explains how a U.S. Supreme Court ruling helped lead to today’s problem of credential inflation.

Perhaps you have noticed that many jobs that require only basic skills and a cooperative attitude are now walled off to Americans who don’t possess a college degree. A recent study entitled Moving the Goalposts: How Demand for a Bachelor’s Degree is Reshaping the Workforce contains a lot of evidence on that. For example, for sales representatives and retail supervisors, 56 percent of recent job postings specify that having a college degree is a requirement.

This doesn’t mean that those jobs have such high intellectual demands that no one without a college degree could possibly do them. What it means is that these companies won’t bother with anyone with lower educational credentials.

Our mania for college credentials works strongly against upward mobility for individuals who, for whatever reason, don’t have a college degree. They are confined to the shrinking and mostly low-pay segment of the labor market where educational credentials still don’t matter. (As I argued here, that explains much of the earnings gap between workers with and those without college degrees.)

But how did this regrettable situation come about? Why don’t employers directly evaluate applicants’ capabilities rather than insisting that they first put in the huge amount of time and money it takes to obtain a degree?

A 1971 Supreme Court decision, Griggs v. Duke Power, had a lot to do with it, by giving employers a strong incentive to use educational credentials as a proxy for aptitude testing.