Although more people are going to college than ever before, those extra years of education aren’t translating into the high-status jobs that most people expect after snagging a sheepskin.
Between 1992 and 2008, according to census data, the college graduation rate increased from 21.4 percent to 29.4 percent, adding 20.5 million bachelor’s degree holders to the workforce. But 60 percent of them are doing low-skilled work once performed by people with high school diplomas or less. During that same period, the cost of obtaining a college degree—both for individual students and for taxpayers—grew much faster than the expected payoff. Over all, one-third of currently employed college graduates are working in jobs that do not require a college degree.
In a December paper published by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, Ohio University economist Richard Vedder cites data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that in 1992 there were 5.1 million workers with higher degrees in occupations officially classified as “noncollege level jobs.” By 2008 that number had more than tripled to 17.4 million. Vedder has also found that nearly 20 percent of new jobs created between 1992 and 2008 for waiters, cashiers, and mechanics are occupied by college degree holders. In retail sales, that figure is over 60 percent.
This isn’t just a cluster of arty comp lit majors clerking or waiting tables while living their dream in a garret. The stats show people who probably wouldn’t have gone to college in another era went to college in the ’90s or ’00s (responding to incentives such as cheap loans) graduated at 22 or 23, and then got the same gigs they would have been qualified for at 18. In Vedder’s words, “The conventional wisdom that going to college is a ‘human capital investment’ with a high payoff is increasingly wrong.”