Studies show that people with four-year college degrees earn more money than those without over their lifetime, that they are more likely to find jobs and, once employed, are almost twice as likely to be selected for on-the-job training.
This has prompted a stampede through college and university gates.
But studies are like photographs: They record the past. They say nothing about the clear and present danger that the bachelor's degree is losing value.
"As more and more people get a bachelor's degree, it becomes more commonplace," says Linda Serra Hagedorn, immediate past president of the Association for the Study of Higher Education and associate dean and professor at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa.
And, she adds, "not all bachelor's are equal." In many communities around the country, the bachelor's is not enough to make you stand out. " 'A bachelor's in what?' that's the question," Professor Hagedorn says.
"Further blurring the line of what a bachelor's degree is and what it really means," she notes, are new attitudes and options in postsecondary education, such as the explosion of online and for-profit institutions, the proliferation of graduate degrees, and a much publicized malaise over the quality and value of undergraduate education.
Bartenders with bachelor's degrees
"A bachelor's is what a high school diploma used to be," suggests Caryn McTighe Musil of the American Association of Colleges and Universities.