Where I mix career information and career decision making in a test tube and see what happens

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Too Many College Grads?

This week’s blog is inspired by my friend Rich Feller, who wrote to ask for my reaction to an opinion piece that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The article, called “Why Did 17 Million Students Go to College?” argues that too many people are getting bachelor’s degrees. It touches on some issues I discuss in my book about the pluses and minuses of various kinds of postsecondary education and training: Quick Education and Training Options Guide: Choose the Route That’s Right for You.

The heart of the article is a table (below) showing 20 occupations that normally require considerably less preparation than a college degree. For example, Parking Lot Attendants typically need only short-term on-the-job training to do the work. The table shows, for each occupation, the number and percentage of workers with a bachelor’s degree (or higher). (For convenience, I’ll refer to “a bachelor’s or higher” here as “a college degree.”)

table from article

The numbers are disturbing. For example, 14% of Parking Lot Attendants have a college degree. Among Bartenders, 16% do. The author of the article goes on to argue that our society is putting too many people through college, including many who should not be there.

I have many objections to the methodology and implications of the article. First, a certain number of artists and other aspirants to highly competitive fields will always be working in occupations for which they are overqualified. This is also true of recent immigrants, who lack English skills or recognized credentials, as one comment on the Web page noted.

Second, the table is based on figures from 2008, a period of great job loss. Many people, out of desperation, were taking jobs for which they were overqualified. I looked at older figures and found that the percentage of college grads in the same 20 occupations had increased by 3% from 2004 to 2008. I acknowledge that even the 2004 percentages were much too high. But this entire past decade has been an era of tepid job growth. In an economy with normal job growth, we won’t see this level of overqualification. And how are we going to get to a better economy without a good supply of highly skilled workers?

The figures in the article don’t necessarily demonstrate that a college degree is not worthwhile. At best, you may judge from the evidence that some college degrees are not worthwhile. Everyone has heard stories about liberal arts graduates who have trouble getting hired in a college-level job. It’s likely that many of these overqualified workers chose an academic specialization that holds little appeal for hiring managers. But, as someone who holds only liberal arts degrees, I maintain that many of the overqualified workers with the “wrong” degree simply aren’t savvy about how to position themselves for employment in fields for which they supposedly are not equipped. I’d argue that what we need is not fewer college grads, or even fewer college grads in the liberal arts, but rather more help with career development and job-hunting.

I can counter the figures in this article with a different set of figures, from a chart (below) maintained by the Department of Labor at a site called “Education Pays.” The chart shows that people with a bachelor’s degree had an unemployment rate of 5.2% in 2009, at a time when the overall rate was 7.9%. Certainly, some of these employed college grads were in overqualified situations, but overall their average weekly earnings were $1,025, compared to $626 for those with only high school. I have followed this chart for many years, and the advantages of the bachelor’s degree are actually growing. So college does seem to be preparing people for good jobs.

Education Pays

Now, let’s switch the perspective. Instead of looking at policy decisions about what’s good for society as a whole, let’s look at career decisions that individuals must make. This is the perspective from which I write my books.

Seen from this point of view, getting a college degree is often an excellent choice. (It’s certainly not the only excellent choice, as I make clear in the Quick Education and Training Options Guide.) One of the people who commented on the article said it very well:

“I work in human resources now for a public university, and I can tell you that college degrees are basically an arms race. No, you may not need a degree to perform the task at hand, but you’re competing against people who have degrees. If you don’t have one too, you’ll be at a disadvantage. Ditto raises and promotions, in which education level is a significant factor. This is true across multiple industries, not just higher ed employment.”

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