The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Four in Ten College Grads Don't Need a Degree for Their Work

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A majority of American workers have jobs that do not require a college degree, according to a new Gallup poll. This finding wouldn’t be particularly surprising if it were only blue-collar workers saying this, but the poll also found that four in ten college grads agreed that they don’t need a college degree for the work they do.

It’s not exactly a shock at this point that college grads haven’t been able to make the most of their degrees, but when nearly half of the country’s college students are wasting money on degrees that they believe have done nothing to prepare them for their jobs, there’s obviously a problem.

These findings can’t be chalked up entirely to undergraduates’ poor choices; college degrees have increasingly become prerequisites for jobs that could easily be performed by high school grads. In many cases, employers are just looking to a college degree as a quick signifier of an applicant’s determination and work ethic, not as a sign of skills learned.

Perhaps there’s a way to reform the employment system so we stop wasting time and money on degrees that are only useful as behavioral signifiers. What would this kind of reform look like?

For starters, it would seek to separate training from education, so that students could accomplish the former as quickly and conveniently as possible without necessarily taking on the latter. This likely means a shift away from the four-year college model for many, toward something that looks more like vocational training, with a greater focus on specific skills and less focus on campus life and subject diversity.

Next, it would reduce dumb bachelor’s degree requirements, so that job seekers and employers could be brought together based on aptitude and achievement tests rather than meaningless but expensive paper credentials.

Old-school academics may balk at these general ideas, but they shouldn’t; none of this has to mean the end of classical education as we know it. A liberal education, for those who want one, is valuable in itself, but the educational experience that many American students get has little or nothing to do with the serious intellectual and cultural education that the liberal arts curriculum involves. Rather than force all college students into a bizarre hybrid of liberal education and skill training, we need to figure out how to make a true education more widely available to those who want it, including adults who wish to continue their education later in life.

The US educational system has a lot of reform ahead of it, and most professors and administrators aren’t all that eager to get with the program. But the public (which ultimately pays the bill) isn’t very happy with the product or its cost at present. Americans have seen far too many years and dollars wasted on useless degrees.

[College quad image courtesy of Shutterstock]

Published on September 10, 2013 12:15 pm
  • Anthony

    Given the premium now placed on going to college by both Americans and hiring economy, up-credentialing spreads throughout labor sector (thus helping to generate mentioned 40%).

    “In 2011, Robert Schwartz, a researcher at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, released a report called Pathways to Prosperity. Schwartz outlined how students had only one real option for achieving success, and argued that a better way to help students get into middle-skill jobs would be to create a rejuvenated career and technical-education high school system that would prepare students for college and Middle-skill careers at same time. The American system for preparing young people to lead productive and prosperous lives as adults is clearly badly broken, Schwartz wrote in the report.”

  • abdul waheed

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  • Matt_Thullen

    I’d add one more suggestion, and that would be to start seriously thinking about reining back some of the employee-friendly laws and regulations that have been enacted over the past dozen or so years. These laws in essence make hiring an employee much more expensive, in that it is so difficult and time-consuming to get rid of poor performers that employers are finding it easier to focus on credentials at the hiring stage.

    If it were easier to fire underperforming employees, I believe many employers would be happy to hire people who may not be heavily credentialed but seem promising, knowing that if they end up being wrong, it isn’t going to take a year and the possibility of a fair amount of legal fees to get rid of an employee.

  • Corlyss

    “This finding wouldn’t be particularly surprising if it were only blue-collar workers saying this, but the poll also found that four in ten college grads agreed that they don’t need a college degree for the work they do.”

    When I graduated AU’s SIS in ’68, a career in teaching and state and grad school were already rejected as requiring a different temperament from mine. To mark time while I decided what I wanted to do, I took the civil service exam and got on the rolls for a government job. I got one quickly in the field of government “purchasing.” For those of you who might not know, purchasing was always considered a clerk’s job requiring no more than a clerk’s education. In the early 70s, just as I was deciding that it was an interesting and often amusing field and not bad for a job, or even a career, the National Contract Manager’s Association as well as the upper echelons in DoD and GSA began working on the recommendations of the Commission on Government Procurement. The Commission was supposed to produce a complete overhaul of the way the government did business when it entered the market place to buy goods and services. One of those recommendations was to “professionalize” the work force by requiring contracting officers to have college degrees in fields related to business or accounting. It was a long slog, and not until the 90s, I believe, did they actually get the requirement reflected in hiring standards such that people without degrees would not be qualified for contracting officer jobs. I think the theory was that more education=better business decisions from better contracting officers. The fallacy in the theory is that the government isn’t a business and doesn’t do business the way businesses do business. The most important contract award decisions are made by the requiring activity that has no such requirement for college educated personnel to make the decisions. Negotiating, the central skill for cost-type (the big bucks) contracting, is learned best thru experience actually negotiating. And lastly the occasional corruption in contracting that the media and Congress loves to find and blow all out of proportion is due to corruptible humans in the system, not to how much education the personnel have or don’t have.

    But now the profession has the college degree requirement for what good it does ‘em. At least it supports higher grades than “cleck” does.

    • catorenasci

      Basically, the requirement serves only to transfer money from the public to the bureaucrats’ rice bowls. Wonderful.

      • Corlyss

        Back in the 80s I’d have said the effort was to make their pay commensurate with the contracting money they ostensibly control. But so much control has been seized by other actors in the chain and so many of the most significant decisions (like who NOT do business with) are controlled by social legislation that mandates a certain results that that hardly can justify it any more.
        On the subject of social legislation vectored thru procurement, I’ve observed here before that when the stimulus was announced, I listened attentively for how much of the cumbersome procurement edifice would be at least temporarily waived to get those “shovel ready” projects started. None of it was. Of course it wouldn’t be. The target of the stimulus was the privileged minorities and their “sponsors.” It was obvious to me within the first month that “shovel ready” was another branding whopper.

  • SisyphusRolls

    While like both WRM and various commenters I am a fan of more vocational training, for jobs that currently require degrees I can suggest an alternative.

    Because of the decision in the Duke Power case in the 1970s, employers are no longer allowed to use IQ tests without triggering violations of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. However, many employers would like to do so. As a substitute, they use college degrees and college prestige, which correlate reasonably with IQ and also tend to include a conscientiousness element for completed degrees.

    If we amended Title VII to allow IQ tests (perhaps ones that meet certain rules, like not having excessive deviations from the mean for various racial or socioeconomic groups), you would see a substantial number of these job listings that do not truly require college-level skills, but only college-level ability, replace that college requirement with an IQ test.

  • stevesturm

    I’m not sure the study supports your argument.

    First, if college degrees have become a ‘quick signifier…’, then college degrees are in fact required for the job they have.

    Second, how many respondents are currently in what I would call ‘filler jobs’, where the job they have isn’t the job they went to school for? An engineering student who works at Starbucks obviously doesn’t need the degree for that job but does need the degree for the job they hope to get.

    • catorenasci

      They’re only ‘required’ because the other (significantly less expensive) signifiers are not currently available to employers.

      I think, too, most people fail to take into consideration the class significance of having a 4-year degree: one simply cannot be socio-culturally considered upper middle class, or even really middle class, without a BA. Economically, yes, but not socially. Everyone knows this, but most people won’t say it.

      The simple fact is that probably no more than 25% of the population (IQ~ =110) has the intellectual ability to do work at the traditional college level, represented now primarily (but not exclusively) by the elite private colleges and universities and the public flagships.

  • ChuckFinley

    First you are going to have to get the Supreme Court to overturn Grigs v.Duke Power.

    That is the decision that said that any test given by a company might be found to have some legal defect that would put the company at serious legal risk of massive financial penalties. However the decision did allow a college degree to be used as a proxy for testing.

    In the years since that decision, the increase in tuition has been an effort on the part of colleges to monetize their role as gatekeeper to better jobs.

  • Jane the Actuary

    Meh — there’s a lot more going on here than employers looking to a college degree as a signifier of work ethic. If they didn’t have their pick of employees, they’d be forced to cast their net more widely.

    http://janetheactuary.blogspot.com/2013/09/four-in-ten-college-grads-dont-need.html