A reader writes:
These statistics from Richard Vedder are a classic example of not understanding your data set. People who work as waiters and bartenders are not careerists - they don't go out, get a degree and then become restaurant staff as a full-time job for life. Most often they become restaurant workers for a part-time period as they look for a job in their field, transition to a new career, or otherwise go through a period when they are not working in the field they've trained for.
I've worked in many restaurants, and very few people I've worked with saw this as a job they would stay with. They all saw it as a way to earn money quickly and easily, since the hours are flexible and the pay is in cash. The fact that wait and bar staff are over educated for the work signifies nothing about our societal preference for higher education.
I find this notion that we are over-investing in education to be absurd.
How many parking lot attendants with degrees plan to do that as a career? They may be doing it between undergrad and graduate schools. Certainly they have a better chance of advancing than their co-workers without degrees, so having a pool of overqualified people adds a kind of dynamic potential to the economy for rapid growth and development.
When I graduated with a Master’s in Music, my first job was as a mail room clerk. But my education allowed me to move up and out of that job quickly. My non-college-educated co-workers were still in the mail room years later.
I have a bachelor's degree (two, actually). In the 13 years since I graduated, I have at various times worked as a janitor, a line cook, and a construction laborer. I've also worked as a financial planner, systems analyst, and currently, as a software engineer. Leaving aside all of the non-financial reasons why education is an a priori good, I did those "less-than-bachelor's" jobs because they were the work that was available and I needed the money. I didn't expect that those jobs were my fate for life. Not having a degree would have foreclosed many the better opportunities which I have pursued. It might not be a guarantee of a middle-class income anymore, but the risk-adjusted return is still much higher than not having one.
Vedder fails to ask whether their degree is playing a role in their life outside of this job. Many people (artists, musicians, writers) tend to have a "day-job" which supports their real profession. In this instance they may be using the skills from their college education in ways not indicated by their "job." Or they could be in a situation like my sister, who has an M.F.A. and teaches 6 courses a year in photography and video at a college. However, she is an adjunct and, like many adjuncts, is paid about $3,500/course, which means she needs to find temporary employment every summer. She is making full use of her degree and still occasionally works in the service sector.
The problem is not the overproduction of graduates, it's an underproduction of jobs - and an outsourcing of labor to countries that are out-producing us in college graduates. There are fewer and fewer jobs for people with any degree, and this particularly hits people with only high school diplomas. This issue strikes me as a distraction from that deeper structural jobs issue.
Just because we have a surplus of college degrees in America doesn't mean the world does. There's solid demand for higher education, particularly American higher education, around the world. Investing in education is about expanding the potential of the economy. Of course there are diminishing marginal returns, but I bet the marginal return to education is a heck of a lot higher than the marginal return to an extra year of work experience as an 18 year old (which is the relevant comparison).
As more and more of our economy shifts into high-tech sectors, we do need more people with college degrees - but not *any* college degree. Our economy's need for English or Liberal Arts majors has not increased, but our need in engineers/computer scientists/nurses has. Graduates with degrees in chemistry or engineering or computer science commonly land the high-tech "new economy" jobs, while the graduates with degrees in liberal arts or english literature disproportionately land "parking attendant" jobs.
A college degree is not just about money or even quality of one's immediate employment. It's also about practical things like developing a network of other educated people, and it's about less tangible things like learning, or at least getting some exposure to, more disciplined ways of thinking than people receive in high school. And I believe it helps make most people better adapted to modern life - as this report about college-educated cops suggests.
I know good people without degrees, such as my parents and all my relatives who live in isolated rural areas. But, having watched them over the years, I do believe they would be less fearful, more curious, and more open to difference if they had been opened to the world in ways that a college degree can provide. It certainly could have made a difference when my child came out to them a few years ago.
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