Civil rights law has distorted higher-education for decades. In Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1971), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that any employment requirement that has a “disparate impact” on protected minorities must be clearly related to the job’s demands. Moreover, employers are obligated to establish this correlation. Richard Vedder and Bryan O’Keefe have persuasively argued that by discouraging employers from using standardized assessments in making hiring decisions, Griggs greatly increased the premium of a college degree, contributing to employers’ misguided emphasis on credentials.
But with tuition skyrocketing, competency-based education has garnered greater attention. As the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) showed in our Are They Learning? guide, testing firms have developed reliable measures of competency and learning outcomes. The Council for Aid to Education will soon release CLA+, an updated version of the Collegiate Learning Assessment that now includes a work readiness component and more student-level data. Likewise, ACT Inc. is continuing work on WorkKeys, its skills assessment that specifically measures work competency.
Though testing firms insist that they do not seek to replace traditional college credentialing, these tests could still lead to disruptive innovation in higher-ed. While employers cannot currently request these kinds of credentials from potential employees, applicants may very well start volunteering them. Accordingly, employers could assess specific measures of competency without running afoul of Griggs. It could also force traditional colleges to start thinking long and hard about the value-added of their degrees.
If employers start looking to competency-based measures rather than degrees alone, higher education’s incumbents will need to become serious about measuring learning outcomes. Evidence is mounting that a four-year degree hardly guarantees real learning gains: Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s 2011 study, Academically Adrift, showed that far too few four-year college graduates make progress in the core verbal and mathematical skills that are essential for success. Many colleges and universities will find themselves cut out of the market it they don’t make serious changes.
Change is coming, and colleges better get on board.