Is college worth it?

By Hannah Sparks

Justin Surgent/Collegian

In “Why are recent college graduates underemployed? university enrollments and labor market realities,” a new study by the Center for College Affordability & Productivity, researchers show that the United States has over-invested in the value of higher education, leading to underemployment among recent college graduates.

“Underemployment” refers to the fact that 48 percent of the 41.7 million college graduates in the current workforce are employed in fields the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests require less than a bachelor’s degree. In other words, many graduates are employed, but nearly half hold low-skill jobs they are over-qualified for.

While the study is not exactly earth-shattering, it gives critics of the higher education status quo a good opportunity to question it. Many people speak of the higher education bubble: how increasing tuition costs and decreasing yields in the job market will cause college enrollment to drop, causing that bubble to eventually burst.

Simultaneous arguments, however, say that college degrees are the route to economic success for the individual and global leadership for the nation, as well as a means of upholding the American ideal of upwardly-mobile egalitarianism. However, as many recent college graduates can likely attest to, the expensive pieces of paper they have acquired hold no promises, no matter how fancy the stationery.

There is, no doubt there is a deep discrepancy between the rhetoric and the reality of higher education. Lazy “college is good” arguments have the potential to put us even deeper in the economic hole than we already are. If this study is any indication, this discrepancy will have important and lasting consequences on the labor force and economy at large.

Authors Richard Vedder, Christopher Denhart and Jonathan Robe identify three main motivations that may explain why young people are still enrolling in college in droves despite the uncertain job market. Each of these motivations, however, has its downsides.

First, the skills learned in college supposedly enhance labor productivity, but the study’s authors are quick to point out that this gives more credit to institutions than, rather than to the students themselves.

Second, college diplomas communicate certain facts about applicants to employers, and act as a screening device that naturally narrows the pool, saving employers resources and money. The problem here is that the more degree-holders there are, the more comfortable employers feel requiring those degrees, making them more commonplace and thus less valuable.

Finally, higher education is a “consumption good or a socialization device.” College is the place to make social and professional connections, as well as learn through life experiences.

Whether or not taxpayers should sponsor “personal growth” or markedly un-egalitarian networking cronyism is the authors’ chief gripe here.

Ironically enough, the true motivator of college attendance is likely the fear of unemployment.

However, the very fact there is such a glut of graduates makes it the case that a growing number of them do not cash in on the economic benefits traditionally associated with their degrees.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Oft-quoted statistics on the financial success of college degree holders versus that of those with only high school diplomas are heavily skewed by the success of those who graduated 10 or 20 years ago.

College has paid off well for them, as not only was higher education markedly cheaper then, but the degrees they obtained more easily translated into career success, being less ubiquitous and more valuable. Relying on those statistics rather than looking at the current picture is hurting both individuals as well as the stagnant economy.

To make matters worse, the number of college-educated individuals is projected to grow twice as fast as the number of jobs requiring bachelor’s degrees. And though specialized fields like biomedical engineering, for instance, which require high-level study, are growing, the overall number of jobs in those fields is still proportionally very small. The three largest job categories – office and administrational support, sales, and food preparation and service, respectively – comprise 35 percent of all jobs and usually don’t require college degrees.

President Barrack Obama has promised that “by 2020, the United States will have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.” But if aggressive goals like these are reached, between 2010 and 2020, there will have been 31.1 percent growth in Americans that hold a Bachelor’s degree or more, but only a 14.3 percent increase in jobs that require a BA. Is “college for all” really so desirable if it means jobs for none?

We have to change the way we think and stop this wasteful cycle. So what is to change first, the attitudes of employers or the actions of would-be college students?

There are two schools of thought.

One is that college enrollment will fall.

In this case, we would see the rise of alternative means of gaining credentials. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) such as those offered through Udacity and Coursera, as well as online degrees, may become more popular, or standardized tests may be developed to show college-level competence. In other words, people will adapt and change their ways.

The other scenario is that more and more people will seek higher degrees as a way of gaining an advantage over those who have only bachelor’s degrees.

The author’s joke that universities will soon offer master’s degrees in janitorial studies – which sounds ridiculous – actually fits better with the historical evidence than the first scenario. We hold education in very high esteem in our society and alternative methods of becoming educated may not catch on quickly.

It is probably more likely that neither of these scenarios will happen and some more moderate middle course will be reached. We can only hope that we will eventually move away from the hysteria that degrees, debt, and un(der)employment is causing our generation, and fast.


Hannah Sparks is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]