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Is “College Degree Required” Illegal Racial Discrimination?

Since our niche job board went live way, way back in 1996, I’ve seen a tremendous increase in the number of entry-level positions that include a four-year college degree as a job requirement. Some professional jobs such as engineering and nursing positions require degrees as people who work in those fields need to licensed by a local, state, or federal government authority.

What concerns me aren’t the positions requiring some type of governmental licensure. What concerns me are positions for which no such requirement exists. Your typical telemarketing job, for example, requires no such licensure. Yet a review of telemarketing job postings reveals that many require a four-year degree. Is there really a need for a college degree for typical telemarketing positions? And, if not, then why are more employers requiring college degrees when seemingly none should be necessary? Could it be that some of those employers have motives which are less than pure and have stumbled across a way to exclude racial minorities from their candidate pool? Even if such idiotic motives aren’t present, could it be that in an effort to cut down their list of qualified applicants – and therefore reduce the amount of work they need to do in order to hire a new employee – some employers have created illegal hiring requirements?

It has been clear since the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark Griggs v. Duke Power Co. decision in 1971 that certain education requirements and intelligence tests used as conditions of employment acted to exclude racial minority job applicants, did not relate to job performance, and therefore were prohibited. In Griggs, the Court held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited the use of employment practices that have the effect of excluding racial minorities even if the employer did not intend to discriminate unless the employer can prove that the practice is related to job performance. The question that I’ve been asking, “Is requiring a four-year college degree for telemarketing and other such jobs illegal?”

Some may argue that candidates with college degrees are likely to perform better on the job than those without and, in may cases, that is true. If an employer can demonstrate through the use of data that their telemarketers with college degrees, for example, perform better than those without, then that the employer should be able to require future candidates to have a college degree. But what about those employers who have no data to support their use of college degrees as a hiring requirement?

Griggs puts the burden on the employer to prove that the requirement relates to job performance if that requirement acts to exclude racial minority job applicants. If an employer has no data proving that a college degree is related to job performance, the next question is whether the requirement acts to exclude racial minority job applicants.

Our college campuses are becoming more diverse, and most agree that’s a good thing. Since 1980, a far higher percentage of all racial groups are enrolled in colleges and universities. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the percentages of 18-24 year olds enrolled in two- and four-year colleges and universities by race are:


College Attendees by RaceSo employers who require a college degree for a position are making that position available to some 44 percent of caucasians but only 32 percent of African Americans and 26 percent of Hispanics / Latinos. A requirement of a college degree excludes racial minorities as a far higher percentage of caucasians, for example, get college degrees than do African Americas or Hispanics / Latinos.

I understand that many and probably virtually all employers who are requiring college degrees for positions either need to (i.e., hospitals who are hiring nurses) or have an honest belief that employees with college degrees perform better than do employees without college degrees. My concern is only with that latter group and I suspect that employees with college degrees do in fact perform better than employees without college degrees in many cases. But given that the law requires employers not just to believe that but to be able to prove it, I urge all employers to make sure they have the data to support their hiring practice of requiring a college degree. If they can’t get that data, then they should consider the possibility that their actions – properly motivated or not – are at best immoral and at worst illegal.

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Steven Rothberg is the President and Founder of, the leading niche job board for college students searching for internships and recent graduates hunting for entry-level jobs and other career opportunities. and SmartRecruiters are co-hosting a Smartup learning and networking event on the secrets of college recruiting from 6 to 8:30pm on Monday, May 13th at the offices of SmartRecruiters in downtown San Francisco. Register today for $10 or for $20 at the door.

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Steven Rothberg

Steven Rothberg is the President and Founder of, the leading niche job board for college students searching for internships and recent graduates hunting for entry-level jobs and other career opportunities.