This paper is about a court case decided by the U. S. Supreme Court in 1971. Although attorneys recognize that the case is important to businesses, its impact on colleges and universities has been explored by only a few. As this paper will show, Griggs v. Duke Power may have enormously boosted the number of students in college and may have increased the differential in income between high school and college graduates. It may have led to higher tuition, without providing commensurate additional value.
Indeed, it could even be a judicial decision whose economic implications have been matched by only a few far more celebrated cases in history such as Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), the Dred Scott decision (1857), and the Schechter Poultry case (1935). The hypothesis of this paper is that Griggs turned a college degree into a "credential." The content of the education did not change, but the degree -- the sheepskin -- became a necessary first step for a decent job.
Today, for many jobs, only a degree opens the doors of potential employers' offices. It does not ensure a job -- college graduates often say that it is just a "fishing license" -- but it assures the employer that an applicant has at least a minimum level of skill and accomplishment. In the eyes of an employer, a degree demonstrates that the applicant passed a certain number of classes,
completed outside reading, wrote at least a couple of papers, thought critically, and was able to manage his or her life in a way that led to graduation. Such skills -- determination, critical thinking and writing, organization, and independence -- are often valued by employers.
Providing such assurance to employers did not always require a college degree, and this credentialing function did not happen by chance. Through a series of court rulings and subsequent legislation, a cumbersome set of legal rules has developed that make it difficult for employers to use testing to find out if an applicant is intelligent, capable, and diligent. As we will see, fear of litigation is always in the background. For many jobs, a college degree has become an alternate means of "testing."
This paper will describe Griggs, the environment from which it emerged, and the subsequent judicial and political activity that created such great constraints on testing. It will discuss testing today and then provide economic information suggesting the magnitude of the changes that Griggs may have instigated. While this paper does not "prove" the educational and economic consequences of Griggs, it suggests that additional scholarly work on the impact of Griggs on higher education is appropriate.