Graduating College is Highly Overrated

That’s the headline I propose for the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to attract public attention to its most recent projection of job growth in the next decade.   Though a tendentious conclusion from the BLS study, such a headline could draw the kind of bipartisan outrage that might lead to a more honest and accurate discussion of the relation between education, jobs, and income in these United States.

The BLS does its study of U.S. occupations every two years, showing the number of jobs in each occupation, its educational requirements, and how much it pays.   Though the specifics change, every two years the study shows that a large majority of jobs now and in the future require no education beyond high school.  And every two years the carefully compiled BLS data is ignored, leaving the field clear for everybody from the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal to President Obama to proclaim that “education is the answer” to economic inequality, poverty, and low wages.

“Graduating college is highly overrated” is about as half-true, and therefore false, as “education is the answer.”  But each claim has some evidence to support it.

According to the BLS, in 2012 only 22% of all jobs required a bachelor’s degree or more, and of the more than 50 million job openings the BLS projects by 2022, only 22% will require a bachelor’s or more.  (In fact, if all you have is a bachelor’s degree, there are only 17% of jobs now and 17% of job openings projected by 2022 that require that degree and no more.)  Problem is that about 32% of the population over the age of 25 has a bachelor’s, and among young people ages 25 to 34, it is a bit higher at 34%.  In other words, there are only two jobs for every three persons who have a bachelor’s degree, and the number of people getting bachelor’s degrees is growing faster than the number of jobs that require that degree – or anything close to it.

Indeed, 26% of jobs in 2012 did not even require a high school diploma, and another 40% required only a high school diploma.  And the BLS projects that it will get worse by 2022, when nearly a third of all job openings will require “less than high school.”

There is a more ambiguous category of jobs that require some “postsecondary education,” whether an associate’s degree or some kind of specialized training certificate or simply “some college.”  But they are required for only about 11% of jobs now, and are projected to provide about 12% of job openings going forward.

The table below summarizes how overeducated our population is for the jobs we actually have.

Level of education

% of people over 25 with this level of education

% of jobs that require this level

Less than high school

12

26

High school diploma

30

40

Some college, A.A., or postsecondary

26

11

Bachelor’s or higher

32

22

We have an oversupply of jobs that require high school or less (66%) compared to the 42% of people whose education fits those jobs.  And conversely, we have an oversupply of people with some postsecondary education (58%) for the 33% of jobs that require something like that level of education.

Just looking at what jobs are now and will be available in the U.S. economy, graduating college seems highly overrated – and it might even be that “going to college is for suckers.”  If all you need for most jobs is a high school education, why bother with college?  That’s simple: wages.

A recent Pew Research Center study, The Rising Cost of NOT Going to College, looks at how income correlates with earnings.  As previous studies have found, high school graduates make $7,000 more a year than those who do not graduate.   Those with “some college” make an additional $2,000, and those who get bachelor’s degrees make $13,000 more on top of that.  The gradient could not be clearer: those with bachelor’s degrees have average incomes twice that of those without high school diplomas ($45,000 vs. $23,000).  What’s more, unemployment rates, poverty rates, and other things follow a similar gradient: the more education, the lower the unemployment rate, the lower the poverty rate, and the more likely you are to have full-time employment and employer-paid benefits.  Conversely, though there are and will be plenty of jobs for people who do not graduate from high school and for those whose education ends with a high school diploma, these jobs generally pay miserable wages – almost uniformly less than $30,000 a year, and most much less.

So, “education is the answer” has some evidence to support it, too.   But both statements are half-truths – not much education is required for most American jobs (now and in the future) and more education leads to higher pay and steadier employment.   It is only when you put the two half-truths together that you can see the whole picture.

If you are an individual 18-year-old, your only chance for a decent income is to go to college or to get some other form of postsecondary education.  Statistically, it will give you a 2 to 1 shot at a decent standard of living vs. a thousand to one for high school graduates and a million to one for those who never graduate from high school.   But if all 18-year-olds – or even most of them – play these odds by going to college, it will do nothing to remedy economic inequality, low wages, and poverty.   In fact, it would probably make all these things worse.

The increasing imbalance of supply and demand — more college graduates than jobs that require them — puts downward pressure on the wages of jobs that require higher education and ensures that more college graduates will be forced to take jobs that do not require college.  Pew found that more than one-third of the recent college graduates it surveyed were currently working in jobs that do not require any college.  Likewise, as more college graduates take jobs that require only high school, more high school graduates are forced to take jobs that do not require a high school diploma, and those who did not graduate from high school have great difficulty finding and keeping any job.   It’s a perfect formula for cheapening all labor.  More and more education is required to attain a decent standard of living, but as more and more people gain higher levels of education, they further flood those higher-paying job markets, leading to lower average wages and living standards for everybody.

The Pew study emphasizes the growing gap between the incomes of college graduates and non-graduates, but it also shows that the real wages of recent college graduates have basically stagnated since 1986.  The growing premium paid to people with bachelor’s degrees is almost entirely the result of 13% and 18% declines in real wages for high school graduates and those with “some college.”

Earnings

More formal education may be an answer for individuals – and I do all I can to convince my grandsons of that.   But it is not and cannot be any part of the solution to economic inequality, poverty, and low wages.   The remedy for all three is the same: higher wages, starting at the low end and reaching up to frontline supervisors.  To get higher wages, workers with and without college degrees are going to need the kind of organized, disciplined collective action that we are beginning to see the first glimmers of among fast-food, Walmart, warehouse, and many other workers.

Those of us in higher education can help by developing a curriculum that will be relevant to those one out of three of our graduates who will not be getting jobs that require college educations.   They need courses in the history of American social movements and courses that teach organizing tactics and strategies for workplace, community, and political organizing, complete with “service learning” internships.   Those are the skills that are needed to raise wages and reduce poverty for the vast majority of American workers.  If we taught those skills, then graduating college might be a bit less overrated than it is today.

Jack Metzgar

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17 Responses to Graduating College is Highly Overrated

  1. Kelly Ohler says:

    Bravo, “L.” Of course “someone” would have to find a way to bring the CWCS’s annual (always around grant-application time!) topic of “A College Education Should Only Be for the Wealthy” to the title message of everyone’s email, even a year AFTER the conversation called out the “elites” that the jig is up. My Point is Validated.

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  2. L says:

    But how am I supposed to do something for a living besides slaving away at some dead end job in a factory or Wal-Mart without a degree? That’s what all these jobs that don’t require a degree are – dead end jobs that don’t pay a living wage and usually don’t offer health insurance. Of course there’s a shortage of people who don’t want to do that as a career.

    Oh… wait, I have degrees in engineering and math and I’m still stuck in these kinds of jobs. You’re doomed either way, I guess.🙂

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  8. What the statistics tell us is that there is a labor surplus for jobs requiring a college degree. Yes, you stand a good chance of being better off IF you get that job. If you don’t and you’re stuck with a huge student loan bill you can’t discharge, then you are worse off than if you had avoided taking on that student loan debt.

    A labor surplus puts employers in the driver’s seat when it comes to pay. If there is a line of people out the door with the same college education as you, then you’re going to take whatever pay is handed to you. Otherwise, you’ll be driving a cab, flipping burgers at a fast food joint, waiting tables at a restaurant, stocking shelves at a retail store, or brewing espresso at Starbucks. This is why I’ve run into a lot of people who found that the jobs they could get with their education qualifications paid little better than the service jobs they’ve worked. They didn’t have to take on many thousands of dollars of debt to get those service jobs, so where is the pay off to getting that degree? In the coffers of the banks, of course.

    Even worse are those people who find out that all the jobs they could apply for in their field of study require previous experience. What this means should be obvious enough. There are more people with the degrees and job experience in the field than their are jobs. No point in even getting that degree if that is the case with the field of study.

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  9. Amy Hanauer says:

    Jack Metzgar, thank you, thank you, thank you for this smart, cogent analysis. What you say is so clear (especially as you explain it), yet so few commentators seem able to hold these two not-so-competing truths in their heads (or in their commentary). I will be sharing this.

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  10. Varg Freeborn says:

    I find it quite curious how those who claim to fight for the working class are the very ones who work to funnel working class kids into a system of life-long debt. While there are some successes from college education that are still achievable, it is Not the success story that is sold to thousands of poor and middle class kids who enter college each year, only to find themselves locked into debt slavery.

    Yes I Dare said the “S” word. In fact, those of you who promote higher education in spite it’s unjustifiable tuition hikes and the horrible burden it places on young people, and who cheer every time a politician says he’ll make it easier for children to borrow money from corporate banks, you are nothing more than handlers for the very Wall Street corporations you claim to despise.

    How many lives have you personally signed over to years of servitude to corporate banks and their interest payments?

    For all of your silly talk about “social justice” and college being a place to “create minds” and “teach community organizing” to battle the greedy corporations and Wall Street, all you are really doing is helping those entities. The corporate banks are the biggest plantation owners in the history Of man.

    College has become a fail-proof way to make certain that kids enter into young adulthood with inescapable debt. Decades of guaranteed interest payments for the bank. That is one of the main functions of your job professors. Funnel those kids into the shackles of life-long debt and interest payments. Tell us more about social justice and fighting wall street. Until our kids learn how to Create products and services that enrich society, they will remain in servitude. Teach them to be skillfull, resourceful, productive, how to stay away from debt and how not to become life-long servants of corporate banks, then you can claim you act with “social justice” in your heart.

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    • Kelly Ohler says:

      So then the answer is to throw up our hands and decide only the wealthy should be educated? Because that IS what is being stated in your answer and in the CWCS’s clockwork “report” to the “masses.” No, Varg, I will never accept that. Maybe you and the rest of the corporate shills who spout this nonsense will. The answer lies in overturning the system, fighting for the elimination of high debt. The answer is NOT to throw up your hands and become a corporate shill wringing your hands every time someone from the “lower classes” wants to be educated. It’s disgusting anyone would even consider options that would enslave the masses into ignorance.

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      • Varg Freeborn says:

        So, I aggressively attack the position of higher education for being the ultimate corporate shill for funneling the poor and middle class into years of burdensome and often life-ruining debt, and that makes me a corporate shill? You should rethink that.

        What you have is an idealized view of the world, and its all black and white, rich and poor. The problem is not that simple. Metzgar’s answer to the wage gap is, of course, “collective action” to force the hand of the corporations to pay more. It does nothing to address the very real problem that higher education is one of the top sources of guaranteed income for corporate banks at the cost of young people’s quality of life. Perhaps professors don’t see it because it is that very debt being put on the poor and middle class youth that fund the ivory tower academia lifestyle.

        You are correct that the rich should not be the only ones with access to higher education. However, if you’re only answer is to sell our poor and middle class youth into decades of wage-consuming debt slavery to the wealthy corporatist than you are the one who holds the twisted view.

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      • Kelly Ohler says:

        My apologies, Varg. I was not calling you the corporate shill, but the professors at the CWCS who put out this message year after year, significantly at the time of grant/entrance application due dates. I have been on both sides of the issue. I was burdened over a decade with student loans for my BA, paying as I went for my MA. While the GI Bill paid for thetuition of my oldest, my second-born had the privilege of having his tuition paid in full. I refused to allow my child to be in debt on that level. I fully understand the issue of student debt inside out and at all levels. My original post is not about this issue, but the point of an education, using Chris Hedges’s POV as its crux. And yes, we have to be practical for we all have to eat. But if you or anyone else on the list thinks an education is about money, then you shouldn’t be in the education “business” in the first place, because you’ve compromised the conversation. It is anathema for this conversation to take place from the hands of those who claim to espouse the advancement of the working-class. Those who talk out of both sides of their mouths should be called on what they’re doing. No one advocates pushing W-C people to further their debt. Changing the system seems to escape the hands of those who write these articles of nonsense. How about a critique and a call to action on Elizabeth Warren’s push to lower student debt to rates of those that the corporations pay? Or a call to action from the CWCS for a real Occupy movement? It is far too easy for these corporate shills to speak W-C values and history and appeal to monetary needs of those they would not lower themselves to understand. Don’t make it easy for them to play corporate games. We already have a highly uneducated W-C. We should be fighting to educate them, not looking for rationalizations to keep them that way.

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  11. Kelly Ohler says:

    Here we go again. The annual CWCS’s annual “report” on how higher education is bad for working class people. Funny how these “reports” come out EVERY YEAR from you people around grant/college application time–just in time to discourage working class people from applying. SHAME ON YOU! Develop a new dialogue, “professors,” because someone is onto your corporate-minded tricks. The only thing I can leave you with is the words of Chris Hedges: “We’ve bought into the idea that education is about training and ‘success,’ defined monetarily, rather than learning to think critically and to challenge. We should not forget that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers. A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, which fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death.”

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  12. rchsweeny says:

    I enjoyed this post which is very timely for us here in Newfoundland, where the provincial government just declared the solution to social justice issues is post-secondary education.
    I do think, however, that it is not just a question of jobs and income. What one learns in college can be vitally important for young people as active and informed citizens engaged in changing their world. The cultural and scientific literacy and communication skills gained have many differing and enriching applications. These competencies contribute to why young people have been at the forefront of the resurgence in street politics from Wall Street to Sofia.

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  13. Ellen Dannin says:

    One of the most under-appreciated paths is apprenticeships in the trades. Good pay and benefits thanks to unions, the apprentices’ tuition is paid for plus they are paid for time working in their trade – and they come out of their apprenticeships with no debt and at least an associate’s degree.

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  14. Varg Freeborn says:

    Perhaps the “college is for suckers” mentality isn’t so far off? It states, on average, a college graduate with a bachelor’s degree earns $13000 more per year than non-degrees. Unless you are getting scholarships or your parents are paying your tuition, you will be taking loans to pay for school. Loan payments following a four year degree can reach $500 a month and higher. On top of losing half of your “raised wage” to banks, you lose all mobility and freedom to take any risk. You may not move about seeking opportunity, you can not strike out with your creativity in entrepreneurial ways. You can’t do any of those things because the priority in your life will be that student loan payment, leading you to take whatever work you think is stable enough to make those payments. You will be owned by those loan payments (corporate banks) for up to decades. All for an average $6000 wage increase over non-degree holding workers.

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