There are many reasons for pursing a higher education. A few persons revel in the intellectual excitement of academic exploration, others “consume” not only the knowledge that college provides but all the social dimensions associated with it—alcoholic stimulated parties, erotic adventures with new friends, athletic events and intramural sport participation, etc. But for most persons, a significant, maybe even the dominant reason, for going to college is that it supposedly will improve one’s prospect of acquiring a good job. In a sense, a college degree has long been considered a ticket to the middle class—an adult life with a good income and relatively high job security. From the standpoint of society, efforts to expand college graduation attainment rates have been justified by President Obama and major foundations (for example, Lumina and Gates) on a need to be competitive with other nations which have a larger proportion of adults with college degrees.
This study argues that the conventional wisdom that going to college is a “human capital investment” with a high payoff is increasingly wrong. Evidence shows that currently more than one-third of college graduates hold jobs that governmental employment experts tell us require less than a college degree. That proportion of underemployed college graduates has tripled over the past four decades. In 1976, Harvard economics professor Richard Freeman wrote about The Over-Educated American—at a time when most college graduates, at the margin, entered professional, managerial and scientific positions traditionally considered jobs for college graduates. If we were “overeducated” at that point in time, what is the case today? Moreover, the push to increase enrollments has led to a majority of the increment of our stock of college graduates finding employment in relatively low skilled jobs, most of which are not particularly high paying (although there are exceptions).
We added roughly 20 million college graduates to the population between 1992 and 2008, for example, but the number of graduates holding jobs requiring less-than-college education skill sets rose during that same period by about 12 million; in other words, 60 percent of the total increase in graduates over the past two decades was underemployed. Anecdotally, most persons can see this is their everyday lives. For example, the senior author was startled a year ago when the person he hired to cut down a tree had a master’s degree in history, the fellow who fixed his furnace was a mathematics graduate, and, more recently, a TSA airport inspector (whose job it was to insure that we took our shoes off while going through security) was a recent college graduate. Actually, these individuals are far more typical of many recent college graduates than is commonly supposed.