Depending on who’s taking the survey and when, between forty and fifty percent of recent college graduates are underemployed, meaning that they’re working in a job that doesn’t require a college degree. Add to that the ten to seventeen percent of recent college graduates who have no job at all, and that adds up to more than half of all recent graduates being either unemployed or underemployed. A Federal Reserve study which examined this problem both in current and historic terms discovered that historically around thirty percent of college graduates tended to be underemployed, but fifty percent is unprecedented.
Yet almost everyone keeps touting higher education as a way to a higher income, and, I suppose, in a way, even with these statistics, they’re right, because the income and employment picture for those without degrees is far worse. But isn’t there something wrong with a system where the number of taxi-drivers with a college degree has gone from 1% to over 15% in the past twenty years? Or where being a telemarketer and phoning every number the computers dial is one of the great opportunities for those with bachelor’s-level English and psychology degrees?
One of the answers that pops out of all the statistics is that college graduates with degrees in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] fields have higher rates of employment, and that may well be… except that, on average U.S. colleges and universities graduate twice as many degree holders annually as there are jobs in those fields.
In some ways, higher education has become almost what amounts to “the Red Queen’s race” [borrowing from Lewis Carroll], in that students have to invest more and more in higher education, in essence to stay in the same place or to find jobs with modest additional returns compared to past generations.
When we as a society are producing what amounts to twice as many degree holders as there are jobs for them, at an ever-increasing cost to the students, their parents, and society, shouldn’t we be looking at whether we need more college graduates, especially given the costs involved? This doesn’t even consider the costs to those who cannot afford higher education and who are effectively barred from jobs they could do, and often do well, by employers who look for college graduates they really don’t need but that they can get. Nor does it consider the costs to graduates with degrees, sometimes with multiple degrees, who are rejected for jobs because they’re over-qualified.
And now that we have candidates for president advocating free college tuition, exactly what would we get for the tens of billions of dollars that would cost, at a time when so many existing graduates can’t get jobs commensurate with their degrees? Or maybe, just maybe, we should allow more students to enter college, but toughen up the curriculum so that only the brightest and most determined graduate?
In any case, for the moment, doesn’t ensuring that there are more people with a college-degree education appear to be the one-size-fits-all answer that isn’t really the solution to a far more complex problem?