Monday, January 5, 2009

Credentialism and Civil Rights in Higher Education

In a Washington Post article, columnist George F. Will discusses the unintended credentialism flowing from the Supreme Court decision Griggs (1971).

Many years ago, I prepared for a federal exam only to learn that it had been scrapped because it had a "disparate impact" on "disadvantaged groups." As a substitute, the government (like other employers) required a Bachelor's degree plus three years of relevant professional experience OR a Masters degree. This credentialism disadvantaged "underrepresented" groups even more than the original requirement. How ironic. Civil rights activists had sued to scrap these exams--a classic case of "beware what you ask for, you might get it."

In a graduate course on public policy history, I assign Steven F. Gillon's collection of case studies, That's Not What We Meant to Do: Reform and its Unintended Consequences (2001). Gillon begins by displaying his liberal credentials ("don't blame the messenger!") but the examples of unintended consequences (welfare, deinstitutionalization, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, immigration) offer insight into the fascinating twists and turns of policies promoted by both the Left and Right.

Is credentialism a problem in higher education? Would all Americans, regardless of race, be better off if they could compete for jobs through examinations rather than the credential of a college degree?

The Proposition 209 initiative overturned the Griggs decision in the state of California. The goal was to return California to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, both in language and intent. The state supreme court upheld Proposition 209 in a decision written by Justice Janice Rogers Brown, a libertarian jurist.* Only time will tell if her decision will have unintended consequences.

*I discuss Proposition 209 and Janice Rogers Brown in Race and Liberty: The Essential Reader.


Frank said...

Prop 209 passed 12 years ago, and its effects have been studied. I was a student at Cal State Chico at the time, and my professor worked closely with Ward Connerly and others in the California legislature. Recently, the professor completed a study on Proposition 209's effects on college admissions, and the results were quite interesting. Apparently, fewer students from some ethnic backgrounds are be accepted into the "flagship" schools, such as Cal Berkeley and UCLA, but they are being enrolled in higher percentages in community colleges and some other "lower-tier" state universities.

i-History said...


You are absolutely right! I've read many of these studies. As time passes, however, there are efforts to get around Prop 209, including successful pressure to change the SAT, shenanigans in government contracting, law schools, and more.

Twelve years is a blink. Some of the unintended consequences profiled by Gillon (e.g., AFDC) took 20 or more years to show up.

But I agree with you -- and there is support in the studies for the "mismatch theory" (minority students accepted at schools that match their abilities are more likely to graduate).