Plenty of economists defend the goal of bringing higher education to a larger share of the workforce, arguing that it’s the best way for the United States to maintain prosperity in an era of stronger global competition for good-paying jobs.
Both sides in this debate may be contributing important grains of truth.
Lots of people are overqualified for the jobs they hold, and this is a challenge that emerged before the deep recession in 2007-09, which created a particularly challenging job market for new college grads.
At the same time, the story of economic progress is one of continuous development of new tools and the skills to use them – and good jobs will flow to nations that can keep pushing further down this path. And millions of individuals have the means to educate themselves, and hope to be useful in jobs that match their talents and aspirations.
The Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP), in its report, emphasizes the risks of pushing too much education on too many people, with too little thought about its usefulness.
Some of the findings:
- If prosperity depends on education, it will also depend on creating jobs to make use of it. Citing forecasts from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the CCAP study says the US will add about 19 million college degree holders during the decade that ends in 2020, while the number of jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree is expected to grow by only about 7 million.
- The “overqualified worker” is much more prevalent today than in 1970. The share of retail clerks who had college degrees back then was less than 5 percent, and has risen more than fourfold since then.
- The economic value of college varies a lot by major. The average mid-career salary for an electrical-engineering grad is currently about twice that of a person holding a degree in music.
Mr. Vedder, the director of CCAP, says that many young Americans are spending money – and going into debt – not so much for skills as for an edge in getting hired. An employer may not require a degree holder for a given job, but can use a degree as a “screening device” to narrow the pool of job applicants.