Too many college graduates are chasing too few college-level jobs

by Grace

Nearly half of working Americans with college degrees are in jobs for which they’re overqualified“, according to study released last month by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

At the core of this issue is the problem of too many college graduates chasing too few college-level jobs.



The proportion of the adult population with degrees has dramatically increased with the passage of time. Figure 3 shows that the proportion of adults with degrees in 2010, 30 percent, was five times what it was 60 years earlier. In 1950 or 1960, college graduates constituted a single digit proportion of the adult population—almost by definition, an elite group. As we will soon demonstrate, what has happened over time is that the proportion of the workforce with college degrees has grown far faster than the proportion needing those degrees in order to fulfill the needs of their jobs, forcing a growing number of college graduates to take jobs which historically have been filled by those with lower levels of educational attainment. The reality is that many jobs in the United States do not require a lot of education to perform, even though they may require on-the-job training, sometimes in considerable amount.

A recent problem

The phenomenon of the college-educated person holding a job requiring little formal education training appears on the basis of this type of evidence, at least for the occupations we examine, to have arisen mostly in the past four decades or so.


Underemployed but overinvested

The authors consider whether our country’s spending priorities have produced a waste of resources, leaving us with a society that is not only underemployed but overinvested in higher education.  They also consider whether this is the time for government to step back from its involvement in higher education and let the market take care of this situation.

All of this calls into question the wisdom of the “college for all” movement. Does it make sense to become the world’s leader again in the proportion of young adults with college degrees? Is the goal of individuals like President Obama or groups like the Lumina Foundation to increase college degree attainment desirable? Should we look for new and cheaper ways to assure employee competency? Should we invest less in four-year degree programs and more in cheaper training, including high-school vocational education that once was fashionable?62 Perhaps the federal government should reduce its involvement in the higher-education business, much like some states seem to be starting to do out of fiscal imperatives imposed by balanced-budget requirements that the federal government does not face. If fewer students could get Pell Grants or subsidized student loans, enrollments might very well fall, an outcome we perceive not to be a bad thing from a labor-market perspective.63

The full report:  Why are Recent College Graduates Underemployed? University Enrollments and Labor Market Realities By Richard Vedder, Christopher Denhart, and Jonathan Robe | January 2013

A lively discussion on this topic took place in the comments of The College Grad/Employment Mismatch (Inside Higher Ed), with one person making this important point about college now providing what used to be considered a high school level of education:

Many college students today are learning (or relearning) skills and knowledge that formerly were taught in high schools. Textbooks have been dumbed down for decades, while more students take remedial English and math courses. Standards are held down by grading on the curve (a mediocre majority sets the class norm) and by the importance of student evaluations of faculty for promotion and retention of instructors, more of whom are desperate adjunct faculty. Tough assignments do not elicit favorable evaluations. Many students work at least part-time, slowing the pace at which they can study. Therefore the function of college today for many students is to provide high school education appropriate to the jobs as in the past except that students formerly attained it by age 18, not 28.
Inside Higher Ed

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