You hear it from journalists. You hear from academics. And, most painfully, you hear it from the twenty-somethings who are shouldering a ruck sack of student debt through this frightening job market: A college degree just isn't worth what it used to be.
In a lot of ways, the lament is true, especially when your point of reference is that frothy time of Spice Girls singles and signing bonuses otherwise known as the nineties tech boom. Like the rest of America's middle class, the gains college grads made during that amazing economic run have largely been erased by the last dozen or so wasted years.
Yet, the college skeptics have a habit of overstating their case. A bachelor's degree in English is not, in fact, a ticket to working at a coffee shop, as Megan McArdle half-jokingly suggested last week. And while the stat's in wide circulation these days, half of all young college graduates are probably not jobless or toiling in menial jobs.
So for the sake of clarity, consider this a guide to what we know -- both good and bad -- about the state of the job market for college grads.
(1) They're Better Off Than High School Grads ...
This part is basic, but can't be repeated enough: Bachelor's holders (in blue below) have about half the unemployment rate of high school graduates (in red below). BA's are still suffering from double the low rate of joblessness they enjoyed pre-recession. And yes, they're even worse off than they were during the tepid economies of the early nineties or pre-housing bubble oughts. But on the whole, you'd much rather have a degree in this job market than not.
(2) ... But They're Still Hurting
That's all bachelor's holders, though (or at least the ones over 25, who the Bureau of Labor Statistics routinely tracks). So what about young adults just off campus? The numbers aren't a nightmare, but they aren't especially pleasant either. Last month, the Bureau released a special report looking at Americans under 30 who'd earned a bachelor's in the past year, as of October of 2011. About 73 percent were employed (the paper didn't specify between full time and part-time). More than 11 percent were still looking for work.
Without a doubt, graduates had it better twenty years ago. In 1994, about 87 percent of BA's were working either full or part-time a year after graduation, according to the Department of Education. About 8.4 percent were out of the labor force, in most cases because they'd returned to school. Just 4.4 percent were outright unemployed.
It's safe to assume that the recent BLS figures have brightened up a bit over the course of our slow but steady jobs recovery. Yet any way you slice it, there are far more jobless college grads around than the United States is used to seeing.
(3) Underemployment Has Grown...
In the end, most sophisticated college critics aren't that worried about unemployment, though. Rather, they're worried about underemployment. There's a very loud chorus who believe that droves desperate BA's are strapping on barista aprons and answering phones as temps just to make ends meet, rather than starting stable professional careers. In the process, goes the argument, they're tragically pushing high school grads who would ordinarily fill those jobs even further down the economic food chain.
(4) ... But by Less Than You Think
That said, while the underemployment problem is real, it's also often over-hyped. Roughly a year ago, the Associated Press caused a stir when it reported that 53.6 percent of recent college graduates were either jobless, or working in a position that didn't require their skills -- a factlet that even made its way into the Presidential campaign when Mitt Romney repeated it (or something close). The article was based off a not-yet-public analysis by Northeastern University economist Andrew Sum. But this January, the Ohio University economist Richard Vedder and the Center for College Affordability and Productivity released their own report based on 2010 data arguing that, as shown in the graph below, "barely half of college graduates are in occupations requiring bachelor's degrees or more." That's all college graduates, by the way -- not just the hapless young ones.
If these numbers were accurate, they'd be a terrible indictment of the investment Americans have made in higher education. They'd suggest that the U.S. was suffering from a chronic case of degree inflation -- that employers, faced with a billowing supply of college bred talent, were demanding ever more elaborate educational credentials for low skill jobs simply because workers were desperate, and available.
Thankfully, there's a strong argument that they're wrong -- or at least very misleading. The problem is that Vedder uses an extremely narrow definition of what qualifies as an appropriate job for a college graduate, based on occupational categories created by the BLS. The government's number crunchers try to classify jobs by the typical education level of entry-level workers within the field. But their results are often backward looking and out of step with the realities of the profession.
Take nursing. According to the BLS, it's an associate's degree level job. But as the New York Times reported back in June, hundreds of hospitals around the country now are only hiring registered nurses with a bachelor's. As of 2008, 39 percent of new nurses had a four-year diploma. A classic case of degree inflation? Not necessarily. Professional groups argue that that nurses with more education are simply better at their jobs.
Or consider police officers, who the BLS say only need a high school diploma, but about 30 percent of whom have a BA. If you were running a city, would want to hire someone with a degree in criminology to solve homicides or one day help manage the department? Or would you rather rely on someone who received most of their training on the job? It doesn't seem unreasonable to pick the former.
As Stephen Rose and Anthony Carnevale of the Georgetown Center On Unemployment and the Workforce have argued, employers in these sorts of traditionally "middle-skill" fields are usually happy to pay a premium when they hire a college graduate (as shown below). This, they say, is evidence that degree inflation isn't really the problem. Rather, some jobs are simply becoming more complicated and skill intensive. Both the education needed to land them, and the pay they command, now reflect that.
When researchers have used a more liberal -- and I'd argue modern -- definition of what makes a college-level job, they've predictably found that underemployment is less common. According to a January report by the Pew Charitable Trusts Economic Mobility Project, before the recession about 60 percent of working college graduates under the age of 25 were in occupations that matched their education, down about 2 percentage points from the pre-crash days (as shown below).
Even the terrifying number that Romney cited was made out to be far worse by the media (myself included, initially) than it actually was. When the AP's report stated that more than half of young grads were either "jobless or underemployed" it happened to leave out a key detail: they were counting students who were back in school as "jobless." While some of those students may have gone for another degree out of desperation -- and perhaps unwisely at that -- enrolling in a graduate program isn't the same as regular old unemployment. In a telephone conversation, Northeastern's Sum told me that when divided up more precisely, his numbers looked extremely similar to Pew's.*
Underemployment also tends to be temporary for college graduates. Even after the recession hit, Pew found that annually, about 27 percent of BA's stuck in high-school level jobs transitioned to college-level employment.
Unfortunately, as Kevin Carey pointed out for The New Republic in 2011, journalists have a have a bad habit of projecting past trends far into the future. And so, as a result, nearly every downturn in the economy has yielded a thick crop of news stories questioning the long-term value of a college degree based on the short-term travails of young grads (as well as the observations of a few carefully chosen economists). Carey, for his part, found a sly way to send up the genre by tracking down a woman who'd been featured in one such 1982 Washington Post article. Then, just two years out of a Yale master's program, she was using her degrees in French and Arabic as...a bartender. Flash forward nearly three decades later, and she was working as a senior manager at USAID doing post-disaster development in...French speaking Madagascar. "That's how things usually work out for people who get college degrees," Carey wrote.
(5) Don't Worry About College; Worry About the Economy
But what if this time past really is prelude, and something fundamental has changed? What if the same way the economy evolved to make most middle-class manufacturing jobs a thing of memory, it's now shedding demand for educated workers? That was the provocative possibility suggested late last month in a working paper by a trio of Canadian economists, including the University of British Columbia's Paul Beaudry.
Economists have long argued that the eighties and nineties were a period defined by what's called "skills-based technological change." The idea is that, with the first great wave of computerization, followed by the wildfire growth of the Internet, the job market stopped favoring brawn and started favoring brains. Employers went dashing after educated workers who could help them set up and use all the fabulous new tools available, and as a result, the demand for college graduates boomed, upending predictions dating back to the mid-seventies that there'd be a glut of bachelor's degree holders.
Most economists tend to assume that this process continued into the oughts. And that's where Beaudry & Co. come in. Diving into the data, they argue that after around the year 2000, the demand for skills stopped growing, and actually reversed somewhat, even as the supply of college-educated young people kept piling up. Suddenly, campuses were producing more graduates than the market demanded leading to -- you guessed it -- the growth of underemployment.
That change showed up in the job market in a few ways, they say. First, the amount of intellectual work involved in the average college grad's job -- as determined by worker surveys -- fell a few percentage points, back to the levels of the mid 1980s.
Meanwhile, the ratio of college educated workers in management jobs to non-management jobs slumped back to its pre-tech-boom level.
And, as many other researchers have noted, wages stagnated. Although illustrates changes to college grad pay with its own graphs, I'm borrowing a chart from the Economic Policy Institute that I actually think pictures the trend they discuss a bit more clearly.
The reason this theory should scare college graduates -- and those who argue we need more of them -- is that it suggests their collective woes aren't a temporary product of the recession. Instead, it says the structure of the economy has changed.
But as Beaudry told me in a conversation, he and his colleagues findings should be interpreted carefully. On the one hand, he said, they suggest that there may have been more demand for certain kinds of skills back when corporations were adapting to new technologies -- and needed people to help them through the process -- than there is today, when companies just need enough smart people to keep the ship running. On other, another great technological leap forward could revive corporate America's need for high-skill work.
And in the meantime, he says, it's not as if the market has deteriorated completely. "This isn't saying all of a sudden it isn't worth going to college," he told me. "It's saying it's, at worst, as good as it was in the eighties."
So where does this all leave us? In the short term, we're still obviously digging out of the jobs hole left by the recession. Unemployment for college graduates is higher than normal. Underemployment is more prevalent, though it's less severe than college critics portray, and perhaps no worse than during the Reagan days.
It's the long view that's cloudier. Maybe, as the recession's impact fades, the economy will naturally go back to quickly churning out more jobs for high skill workers, and academics like Beaudry and his colleagues will be proven wrong. Or, perhaps they're right, and we'll need to wait for another great tech revolution before the market for educated workers goes back to growing the way it did 15 years ago.
We can't say for sure. But we do know that young people are safer with a degree than without one. And if you're a wonk trying to figure out if we should be sending more or fewer students to college, the more important question might be whether we're rebuilding an economy with room for the grads who will be coming off of campus no matter what.
*CORRECTION April 9: In an earlier version of this article, based largely on the AP's description of his analysis, I incorrectly lumped Sum's methodology in with Richard Vedder's. His methods, and results, are in fact closer to the Pew study I cite. Sum had not responded to a request for an interview before publication, but his office brought the issue to my attention today. Although the analysis for the AP still hasn't been released, he produced a similar report for the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education.