The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Higher Ed Bubble: Degree Inflation Edition

If you need yet another hint that something is way off in America’s education system, you need look no further than this story in yesterday’s New York Times. It gives a brief snapshot of today’s labor market, where a college degree has become the effective equivalent of a high school diploma: the minimum requirement for getting most any kind of job.

Economists have referred to this phenomenon as “degree inflation,” and it has been steadily infiltrating America’s job market. Across industries and geographic areas, many other jobs that didn’t used to require a diploma—positions like dental hygienists, cargo agents, clerks and claims adjusters—are increasingly requiring one, according to Burning Glass, a company that analyzes job ads from more than 20,000 online sources, including major job boards and small- to midsize-employer sites.

Requiring college degrees for jobs that don’t call for that kind of education is a sign that America is over-investing in the wrong kinds of education. The end results are, as the Times reports, highly skewed unemployment figures: Those without a college degree face 8.1 percent unemployment versus 3.7 percent for those who finished a program.

While Via Meadia believes that a college education is a very valuable thing indeed, the solution here isn’t to ensure that everyone gets a college degree. Instead, we should be opening the door to more knowledge-based testing of potential new hires, and making it illegal to discriminate against people who don’t have degrees for jobs that really don’t require them. This would make for a fairer society and would let more young adults make their own informed choices.

Published on February 20, 2013 9:00 am