Andrew Gillen writes for the Martin Center about the causes of credential inflation and potential solutions.

Credential inflation refers to an increase in the education credentials required for a job—for example, a job that used to be done by high school graduates but now requires new hires to have a college degree.

Credential inflation has been going on for decades. One of the earliest mentions of it is in professor Randall Collins’ book The Credential Society, published in 1979 and republished last year; two recent studies give a sense of how widespread it has become. …

… There are two main drivers of credential inflation.

The first driver is upskilling, which is when the nature of a job changes to require more education. For example, drafting did not traditionally require a college degree, but as computers and complex architectural software have become more prevalent, the skills needed by drafters have expanded, so it is not surprising or objectionable that these jobs increasingly require college degrees.

But the other driver of credential inflation is a mismatch in the supply of and the demand for educated workers. The New York Federal Reserve Bank estimates that 34 percent of all college graduates are underemployed, meaning they are overqualified (in terms of educational credentials) for their current job. With so many graduates floating around, employers use a degree as a screening device even if the job in question doesn’t require knowledge that one might learn in college.

Credential inflation is a problem for several reasons.

First, it (unnecessarily) reduces opportunities for many qualified workers. If a job doesn’t truly need a college education, yet a college education is a job requirement, then many otherwise qualified workers will be passed over, thus impeding their upward economic mobility.

Second, credential inflation devalues other forms of learning. …

… Requiring a bachelor’s degree for a job that doesn’t truly need one is asking students and taxpayers to spend $120,000 over four years for no good reason.