This page has moved to http://centerforcollegeaffordability.org/archives/1761.
By: Christopher Matgouranis
After reluctantly agreeing to help my sister move into her college apartment, I was given the duty of getting the cable set-up. As it was required that I be present while the cable company representative installed the cables, we engaged in some small talk while he worked. It turns out that he attended my university and had actually taken many of the same classes that I have. This individual had graduated with a bachelor’s degree several years prior but was now just setting up cable television for college students. This is just one of the many anecdotes about underemployed college graduates. Do any data exist to suggest that, rather than just an anecdote, such underemployment is a systemic problem?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps a superb data base of educational attainment levels by occupation, publishing detailed attainment data for well over 700 professions. But what does this data show? Overwhelmingly this dataset supports the anecdotal evidence that there are legions of underemployed college graduates. The table below highlights just a few of the examples, showing the percentage of workers in a given profession who possess at least a bachelor's degree.
|Proportion with a College Degree
|Customer service representatives
|Baggage porters and bellhops
|Secretaries (not legal/medical/executive)
|Hotel, motel, and resort desk clerks
|Taxi drivers and chauffeurs
|Manicurists and pedicurists
|Locksmiths and safe repairers
|Telecomm. installers & repairers
Other examples include the aforementioned mail carriers, of whom 13.9 percent have at least a bachelor’s degree. It is quite unlikely that the sociology or humanities classes these individuals took in college are making them more proficient at delivering the mail. 24.1 percent of all food service managers hold a bachelor’s degree, while an additional 3.1 percent have a master’s degree. Is a college degree requisite for running a restaurant, say McDonald’s or Friday’s? Probably not.
This is basic empirical evidence that we have produced too many college graduates. The promise of a bachelor’s degree falls short when people end up doing things that they could have done without attending college. It is very likely that many college grads did not attend college with the dream of becoming a shampooer. Further evidence against the bachelor’s, the unemployment rate of college graduates, currently at 4.4 percent (higher than the historical average), is not as high as the overall rate, but indicates that the bachelor’s degree is not a guaranteed path to a cushy middle class life-style.
When considering public policy aimed at increasing the percentage of college graduates in the labor force, it must be an imperative to consider what these people will be doing after graduation. Is it socially responsible for us to encourage individuals to enroll in college and accumulate massive debt when the benefits are becoming increasingly uncertain? I think not. An increase in the overall percentage of college graduates will just see that more will end up underemployed (or unemployed altogether).
This increase will also place an upward pressure on credential inflation. Employers currently require college degrees for jobs that really do not warrant one. For example, a quick search of monster.com will show that for many jobs, such as an office clerk or administrative assistant, a college degree is preferred or even required, when the work entails tasks that high school/ vocational grads could easily handle. This problem will only be exacerbated if the norm moves more towards holding a college degree. It may be a laudable goal to increase the amount of college graduates in the work force, but it is truly misguided. Society would be better served if it instead focused its resources towards vocational educations and certifications, a less costly and more effective alternative.