Stop Worrying, College Students!

In a widely-discussed piece published in The New Republic, Kevin Carey argues that Americans ought to ignore the stories about the glut of college graduates who are unemployed or underemployed. Carey, who participated in the Pope Center’s event last month, says in effect that getting those degrees will prove to be a good investment–sooner or later–so stop worrying and enroll.

Since I am among those who have been saying that college is greatly oversold and many high school graduates would be better off if they followed some other path, Carey’s article made me sit up straight. Had he found some fatal flaw in my analysis?


Far from blowing the case that college is a bad idea for some people out of the water, Carey’s piece didn’t even get it wet.

He began with a story about a student, Sally Cameron, who had earned not just a management degree from an elite school, but also a master’s degree—and nevertheless the best job she could find during the recession was bartending.

Typical predicament for graduates today, the reader is thinking, when Carey springs the surprise. That story goes back to 1982. The student has a very good job today, thanks to her education. Here is Carey’s big point: ”For going on four decades, the press has been raising alarms that college degrees may no longer be a sound investment. Two things about these stories have remained constant: They always feature an over-educated bartender and they are always wrong.”

To clinch his argument, Carey piles on two more similar cases of students who went to good colleges, had some tough times in the labor market, but later found good jobs. Should we leap from those instances to the conclusion that young people thinking about college now should blissfully assume that things will turn out well for them?

I certainly wouldn’t. You’ve probably read the caveat on advertising for financial investments, “Past performance is no guarantee of future performance.” That wise counsel is the first point I’d like to examine. There are at least three ways in which the situation facing graduates now is different from that facing them back in 1982.

First, a significantly smaller percentage of students went to college then, so the glut of graduates was smaller. Second, and more importantly, far fewer students who can be described as academically weak and disengaged went to college then. The Yale graduate obviously had a great deal of intellectual firepower to help her find a good job, but many of the young Americans currently contemplating college are cursed with low cognitive abilities—and college usually does little to remedy that. And third, perhaps most important of all, college today costs far more than it used to.

Another arrow in Carey’s quiver is the average earnings argument. He cites the data on the increasing percentages of people holding college degrees and says, “Despite the increase in supply, the price that employers were willing to pay for college graduates went up, not down” between 1983 and 2008.

Again, the present is not exactly the same as the past, but there is a deeper problem with the resort to aggregate data like that: they obscure a lot of important information.

The 1983 to 2008 period was generally one of rising prosperity,  and employers created lots of jobs that paid well. Most of those jobs were offered to people with college degrees, pulling up the earnings data for that group. But that did not mean that every person who had a college degree was able to land one of those good-paying jobs.  We know that quite a few of them did not, and wound up competing for “high school jobs.”

As evidence, I’ll first point to the 1999 book Who’s Not Working and Why by Frederic Pryor and David Shaffer. They found that “An increasing share of university-educated workers are taking jobs where the average educational level has been much lower….From 1971 through 1987, a rising share of male and female university-educated workers of all ages took such high school jobs.” (p.67)

While having a college degree correlated with higher earnings, it didn’t (and doesn’t) produce that benefit for everyone. Recently a study was released by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity on the growing extent to which college graduates are working in jobs that do not call for any advanced academic preparation.  It shows that we don’t just have a few stories about college graduates working as bartenders, mechanics, ushers and so on; we have a large and increasing population of college-credentialed workers doing jobs that most high school students could learn.

Some of them probably find high-paying jobs in time (that is, jobs supposedly commensurate with their educational level, as in the Sally Cameron story), but the fact that this population keeps expanding shows that most do not.

Those are the people for whom a college “investment” is one of low or negative return. While college is unquestionably beneficial for students who have high aptitude and desire to learn, for students who have only marginal to weak academic abilities and little desire to study, coasting through a low-standards college just to obtain a degree may be a huge waste of time and money.

Carey has one more big card to play, namely the “increasing skills” argument. He says that our labor force is marked by “the ongoing march of skill-biased technology change.”  Supposedly, large swaths of the workforce now require “enhanced human skills” to match the increasingly sophisticated technology in use.

I have been hearing this “higher skills” argument for years, but its advocates never explain exactly what those skills are and why only college graduates have or can acquire them.  Sure, many jobs call for some facility with computers, but most middle-school kids are familiar with computers today. Is there a large increase in jobs that demand knowledge that bright high school graduates couldn’t possibly have? I’m aware of no information showing that to be the case.

On the contrary, as evidence that high school graduates can learn the skills needed for increasingly sophisticated technology, consider the military. Over the last few decades, the variety of weapons, communication systems, ships, planes, transportation gear, and so on used by the armed forces has become ever more complicated. The enlisted ranks, however, consist mostly of high school graduates with at best middling scholastic achievements.

Nevertheless, the military succeeds in training its personnel to a superb level of expertise. My point is that just because jobs may demand “higher skills” does not mean that a college education is essential for those skills.

Should every young American, no matter what his or her academic ability and interest, enroll in college with the expectation that “things will work out” just as they did for Sally Cameron? That would be very illogical.