For years we’ve heard the propaganda line that everyone needs to go to college — that a degree will improve your status and standard of living.
It has become politically incorrect to even suggest that a higher education degree might not be right for every young American. So it’s not surprising that those without a college degree often feel inferior and marginalized.
Has a college degree become the litmus test for whether a person is well educated and successful? These highly successfully individuals would likely disagree with that premise.
Michael Dell, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Simon Cowell, Barry Diller, Ted Turner, Ralph Lauren, Governor Jan Brewer, Governor Scott Walker, Governor Gary Herbert, Peter Jennings, Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor, William Safire, Larry King, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Woody Allen, Karl Rove, and 33 members of the U.S. House of Representatives.
What do they all have in common? Not one received a college degree!
A college degree has long been considered the golden ticket to a more fulfilling life both financially and intellectually. Now the bloom seems to be off the rose. Students are graduating, armed with a politically-driven pseudo education, to find themselves jobless or underemployed, debt ridden, and perhaps living again with parents.
Political leaders, college presidents, and prominent foundations argue that the U.S. must increase the proportionate number of adults with college degrees if it is to remain competitive in the global economy. But this premise is incompatible with the cold facts.
In 2009 President Obama said he wants the nation to reclaim its position as the world’s leader in the proportion of college degrees by 2020. In his January 2010 State of the Union address Obama stated, “In this economy, a high school diploma no longer guarantees a good job.”
Given that nearly 54 percent of all college graduates in 2010-2011 were either unemployed or woefully underemployed, it would have been more accurate to say that a college degree no longer guarantees a good job…. or any job for that matter!
A January 2013 study by the Center for College Affordability presents empirical evidence that colleges and universities are churning out graduates faster than the labor markets are creating jobs requiring college degrees.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that only 20 percent of U.S. jobs require a bachelor’s degree or more. About another 10 percent require some post-high school instruction, including an associate’s degree. Against this need, the United States is already producing a workforce with about 30 percent holding a bachelor’s degree and another 10 percent with an associate’s degree.
The BLS breakdown for 2010 shows: 3.1 percent of jobs required a professional degree (law, medicine) or a Ph.D.; 1.4 percent, a master’s degree; 15.5 percent, a bachelor’s degree; 5.6 percent, an associate’s degree; and 5.2 percent, some schooling beyond high school, including some college. The grand total: 30.8 percent. Projecting ahead to 2020, the BLS concluded that there will be a slight increase in these jobs but they will still represent only 31.6 percent of the total.
The BLS Monthly Labor Review for January 2012 states, “Overall employment is projected to increase about 14 percent during the 2010-2020 decade… occupations that typically need post secondary education for entry are projected to grow faster than average, but occupations that typically need a high school diploma or less will continue to represent more than half of all jobs.”
Since our society has swallowed the “college degree for everyone” propaganda completely — hook, line, and sinker — we now have the unintended consequence of credential inflation.
No longer is a college degree as prized as it once was. Today it is the new high school diploma — the gateway for getting even the lowest-level jobs. High school graduates are being told they are unqualified for jobs they once were able to get, such as security officers, cargo agents, clerks, and claims adjusters.
Degree inflation hits women workers the hardest. About 96 percent of administrative positions, including secretaries, receptionists, paralegals, and clerks have traditionally been held by women. These jobs, which offered women one of the best paths to a middle-class income without a college diploma, now require a college degree.
Credential inflation is relegating the poor, who have the most difficulty in paying for an education and often struggle with academic work, to a shrinking number of jobs that don’t require advanced studies.
With an increase in the number of bachelor’s degrees comes a decline in their value. This will have adverse effects on the future of colleges because many students may decide to opt out of higher education altogether.
The good news is that there are an increasing number of alternatives to the traditional college. With more online education and independent certification of competencies, people will be evaluated on the basis of their actual knowledge and skills and not on their paper credentials. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban encourages students to take online courses. He says, “I want the best and brightest, not a piece of paper.”
U.S. education policy is incredibly flawed when students are pushed into college degrees that do not fit their requirements and needs, degrees that many will never get, and debt that they cannot repay. Not only will the students be the losers but also the taxpayers who will get saddled with a student loan bailout and a U.S. economy that does not have a workforce educated to meet the nation’s needs.
It’s time for a policy change at all levels.
Carole Hornsby Haynes, Ph.D., is a speaker, commentator, and writer of education policy.