After World War II and through decades of postwar economic growth, college attendance morphed from an exception into the desired norm. In 1950, some 34 percent of adults had completed high school; today, more than 30 percent have completed a bachelor's. In 2009, colleges and universities handed out more than 1.6 million bachelor's degrees, a number the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) expects will grow to almost 2 million by 2020.
Spiraling degree inflation is what Richard Vedder, professor of economics at Ohio University and adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, calls it. The danger he sees is that growing numbers of Americans will be unnecessarily saddled with hefty student loans.
"The fact is that it is not a sure shot you're going to get the high-paying job," Professor Vedder says, and the notion that the earnings differential "is continuing to grow and expand is somewhat suspect."
Bachelor's degree-holders may well earn 66 percent more than high school graduates and 35 percent more than people with two-year degrees, he says. But for every bachelor's degree-holder earning more than $54,000 a year, he notes, there is a mail carrier, taxi driver, bartender, parking attendant or other worker with a bachelor's earning less. Indeed, almost 16 percent of the country's bartenders and almost 14 percent of its parking lot attendants have a bachelor's or higher.
Vedder predicts more and more college-educated people will be in jobs that do not require a four-year degree.