Monday, May 19, 2008

Should You Need a B.A. to Work at Wal-Mart?

By Richard Vedder

I am a little late in reading one of my favorite monthly reads, POSTSECONDARY EDUCATION OPPORTUNITY, Tom Mortenson's data-laden commentary on higher education. Some interesting numbers are in the April 2008 issue, confirming my view (although certainly not Mr. Mortenson's, I suspect) that we are becoming over-credentialed as a nation --maybe even over invested in some dimensions of higher education.

In 1996, 16.5 percent of bachelor's degree holders worked as clerical or service workers --low paying jobs which historically have been dominated by persons with modest educational backgrounds. By 2004, that percentage had risen to 18.2 percent. Meanwhile, the proportion of bachelor's degree holders in the "managerial and professional" occupations fell from 57.9 percent to 54.5 percent. These are high paying jobs that often have been regarded as jobs requiring high level education and/or skills. In 1996, there were 3.51 college grads in the higher paying jobs historically (for the past two generations) viewed as "college" jobs for every college grad in one of the low paying historically jobs requiring low education. By 2004, that ratio had fallen to 2.99 --a pretty dramatic drop in just 8 years.

What I am wondering is: are we turning out far more college graduates than needed to fill jobs historically viewed as requiring college training, so there is more spillover into lower paying occupations? Even in production occupations (e.g., factory work) where even in 2004 over 60 percent of workers had a high school education or less, there has been a pretty sharp increase in employment of college educated persons. In 1996, only 7.4 percent of those workers had an associate, bachelor's or advanced degree ---by 2004, the proportion was 11.8 percent.

Now it is possible that the jobs within these various professions have required more education and skills, but the significant magnitudes of the shifts and other evidence makes me highly skeptical. It is true that as our K-12 education continues to perform in a mediocre fashion, employers seeking even minimally educated workers sometimes turn in despair to college educated persons. All of this, however, suggests there is a good bit of malinvestment --maybe overinvestment --in higher education. As the cost of college rises and graduates increasingly gravitate to low paying occupations, college is becoming a more problematic investment for more Americans, perhaps explaining the stagnation in college attainment rates in recent years. As Charles Miller has said to me, it may simply be rational behavior for some persons to just say no to college.

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