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?

3 thoughts on “Contra-Trend”

  1. Terry F says:

    I believe what needs to be addressed is the lack of young people going into the skilled trades. I work in the HVAC field where there is a huge lack of trained technicians. And this is true in all of the skilled trade fields. Many of these only need a two year degree.

  2. D Archerd says:

    Absolutely agree with Terry F – we could really use a robust apprenticeship system like Germany’s to increase the number of skilled tradesmen.

    The one thing to be said for hiring college grads into positions that don’t really require a degree is that the employer can be reasonably certain that the person they hire can read, write, and do basic arithmetic, which cannot be said of a large number of people who complete high school. Unfortunately, a significant number of those college graduates still cannot write grammatically or with proper spelling, but that’s another issue. (Perhaps they are in need of an ‘expresso’ to ‘orientate’ themselves and ‘hone in’ on their skills.)

  3. Joe says:

    +1 : skilled trades

    However, free college tuition is good for society. It should not only be for people to get a better job. A democracy relies on having interested people who are able to think. But that doesn’t mean everyone who went to University should necessarily get a job “requiring” a University degree. Nor should people be considered “overqualified”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *