Higher Education: Too Much of a (Potentially) Good Thing?

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Recent decades have seen a dramatic expansion of higher education. Americans are accessing higher education at growing rates, at the undergraduate level and beyond. Though this phenomenon is widely celebrated, this Article argues that the proliferation of higher education also has a dark side. Using empirical evidence, we show that American higher education is plagued by an "arms race." Individuals acquire more education than they need for performing their job or for personal growth in order to gain an edge in a competitive job market. As people gain more education, employers become more selective, further fueling the educational arms race. This Article argues that this arms race is both socially wasteful and unjust. It is wasteful because individuals and the public invest enormous resources in higher education without increasing work productivity or contributing to economic growth. It is unjust because it benefits those who can afford to study while others are forced to either incur huge debt to fund education or work in low-paying, menial jobs. This Article then discusses several legal solutions aimed at mitigating the educational arms race. The suggestions are designed to target only cases in which the expansion of higher education is indeed inefficient and unjust rather than to restrict higher education generally. The first suggestion involves "banning the higher-education box"; that is, highereducation requirements should be considered discriminatory when they cause racial disparity and are unjustified by business necessity. Second, we suggest imposing a "signaling fee" on employers when they hire overeducated workers, and third, we propose encouraging practices of lifelong learning and on-the-job-training. Adopting these (and perhaps other) measures is crucial in order to reverse the educational arms race and safeguard higher education as the socially beneficial institution it should be.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)761-805
Number of pages45
JournalWake Forest law review
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1 Sep 2019


  • Human capital
  • Job performance
  • Higher education -- United States
  • Bachelor's degree
  • Equality
  • United States


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