Overeducated Waiters

Higher education bubble


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."

NEXT: Myocardial Infractions

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. The assumption here is that education is about economics… but there’s a lot more to education than that.

    1. The only things I learned in college were how to drink, party, do drugs, and how easy college girls are!

      Pretty important lessons if you ask me…

    2. Maybe not to college students. Surveys* find that large proportions of students cite increased job opportunities/pay as their reasons for going to college. Probably many students who feel that way would not to go college if they thought they would wind up working these sorts of job afterward.
      (*I found this – http://voices.washingtonpost.c….._want.html – but I know there’s a longitudinal one out there, as well, that shows the same thing)

  2. What about the jobs that “require” college but should not? In this environment, employers are using college as a screening criterion for hiring rather than for any education value it might have. In other words, if you were solid enough to get into and stick it out thru 2 or 4 years of college, they figure you might be worth their investment in hiring you.

    For that reason, college may (for the individual, not for society) be a worthwhile investment towards getting jobs, or at least towards getting the first job or two. It might be only as a cashier, but it could well be a job they’d’ve been passed over for if they didn’t have a degree. That is, college is no longer the difference between more and less advanced jobs, but between any job and none at all.

    1. That’s absolutely correct Robert. I dropped out of high school and have been working for my father’s business most of my life. When his work has slowed in the past I go out trying to find a job and hardly ever find a decent one. Most employers probably think I’m a quitter and lying about working in a machine shop since I was 10; so I’m getting a degree just to show them I can “stick it out” at something. haha.

  3. That’s absolutely mbt shoes sale correct Robert. I dropped out of high school and have been working for my father’s business most of my life.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.