Building little with mortar boards

We’ve all heard the phrase “all dressed up and no place to go.” According to a new report published by the non-governmental policy group, the Center for College Affordability and Productivity ( ), American college graduates are facing exactly that situation upon completion of their undergraduate (baccalaureate) degrees.

As the CCAP concludes, “Increasing numbers of recent college graduates are ending up in relatively low-skilled jobs that, historically, have gone to those with lower levels of educational attainment.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, since 1970, a mounting number of graduates have climbed up the educational ladder only to end lower than they expected. The BLS observes that approximately 48 percent of employed U.S. college graduates are in jobs that require less than a four-year college education. Eleven percent of employed college graduates are in occupations requiring more than a high-school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree; and 37 percent are in occupations requiring no more than a high-school diploma. Approximately 5 million American workers currently hold a job that could be performed by a person without a high school diploma.

While it is conditionally true that individuals with college degrees tend to have higher lifetime earnings than those without, this statistic requires fuller examination. In the first instance, not all majors are equal. As the CCAP report states, engineering and economics graduates typically earn almost double what social work and education graduates receive by mid-career.

By that same stripe, not all colleges are equal. Typical graduates of elite private schools make more than graduates of flagship state universities, but those graduates do much better than those attending relatively non-selective institutions, the CCAP notes.

From this a number of unpleasant truths start to emerge. First and foremost, a college education is not the panacea we might like to think it is. Secondly, the U.S. economy is deeply stratified. Those born into privilege tend to stay in privilege — their elite degrees and social connections ensuring as much. Third, as the U.S. economy becomes more service-based, those persons with technical and scientific competencies tend to do better than those with specializations in humanities and social sciences. As recent evaluations of so-called STEM curricula (science, technology, engineering and math) demonstrate, many of our nation’s highest collegiate performers are foreign nationals who take their U.S. education and go back home.

What results is a U.S. employment picture with fewer high paying jobs outside a narrow band of STEM fields and a growing underclass of over-educated college graduates who work in the lower echelons of the service industry. The saddest feature of this situation is that we perpetuate it with the myth that everyone needs a college degree.

With the clamor to push everyone through an undergraduate program, we have systematically stretched college resources to accommodate people who should not be there and, by that fact, have diluted the value of the entire enterprise.

It is neither elitist nor exclusionary to say that remediation has no place in a university curriculum. By enabling college to become the thirteenth grade, we do a disservice to individuals who would be better served (and financially better off) pursuing vocational or technical training. In short, college isn’t for everyone.

By slowly lowering College Board (ACT and SAT) scores until everyone can be admitted, we erode the value of the degrees earned. College admissions should be determined by strict academic merit and nothing else. To do otherwise guarantees that everyone involved is less than they might be.