02/23/2015 02:52 pm ET Updated Apr 22, 2015

Judge Scott Walker on His Record, Not His Education

The recent news that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker did not actually graduate from Marquette University has set off a media firestorm. Some say that a college degree should be a necessary prerequisite to be president, whereas others feel that college is not necessary.

This debate comes at a good time, because as we become increasingly aware that college degrees are less accessible for poorer and minority groups, it is important to consider whether as a nation we engage in a form of "educational discrimination" whereby people without college degrees face institutionalized disparity.

College is still primarily affordable only for affluent people. A recent study by the Pell Institute found that between the years 1970-2012 18-24 year old members of families in the lowest quartile of income (less than $34,160) were enrolled in post-secondary education at a rate of 45 percent, whereas 81 percent of 18-24 year olds from the highest income quartile (above $108,650) were enrolled. Thus, despite our best efforts, getting a 4-year degree is much easier for children of wealthier families. Further, evidence suggests that there are racial divides in education, with white students clustering at selective institutions while black and Latino students are more likely to attend open-access or community colleges.

As a result, requiring a college degree for any job, including the presidency, serves to discriminate against poor and minority members of the nation. And one could argue that this is in fact the state of affairs. As a nation, we have a substantial diversity problem in terms of elected officials. For example, while 50% of the country is female, 100% of our presidents have been male, and currently 81% of Congress is male. Similarly, while 17% of our country is Latino, no presidents and only 7% of Congress is Latino. And recent reports suggest that while 60% of Americans do not hold a college degree, only 5% of Congress does not hold a college degree.

This discrimination has real consequences. High school graduates can expect to earn $1.2 million over the course of a lifetime, whereas college graduates on average will earn $2.1 million. And there is substantial evidence that higher education is associated with improved health. A recent Centers for Disease Control study found that in 2006, on average, men with a Bachelor's degree or higher lives 9.3 years longer than those without a college degree, women lived 8.6 years longer.

But the pattern of requiring college degrees is particularly troubling in the absence of clear data that a college degree actually results in improved performance across a range of jobs. If employers cannot definitively show the benefit of having a college degree, what is the justification for this discriminatory practice? And when considering the relative accessibility of college to poor and minority people, does this system create de facto racial discrimination?

When President Obama was elected president, it was hailed as breaking a racial barrier that signaled, at least to a degree, that this country would not discriminate against a presidential candidate because of race. Hillary Clinton's candidacy has been described in the context of women "breaking barriers." And Kate Brown's being the first openly bi-sexual governor is one of several recent wins for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. These battles were won after long campaigns to identify and challenge prejudices and discrimination against different members of our society.

Analyses suggest that by 2020, 65 percent of jobs will require some type of post-secondary education beyond high school; 35 percent will require a 4-year degree, 30 percent will require some college or an associate's degree. Thus, many are saying that a "college degree is the new high school degree."

There is no doubt that we need to continue to help everyone who wants a college education to be able to afford it. And college still needs to be a path by which people can learn and demonstrate their excellence. But it is critical that it is not considered the only path; we need to send a message that there are many paths to success. Otherwise we are making the mistake of conveying the message that some people have a clear path to achieve whereas others do not. So maybe it's time that we have a real discussion about educational discrimination.

And we can start by judging Scott Walker on his record, not his degree.