Higher Education Watch
A Leak in the College Bubble?

When the housing bubble burst and sent the economy into a tailspin, the college bubble started to inflate even more rapidly. Desperate to compete in a brutal labor market, workers faced intensifying pressures to rack up degrees. Colleges (even marginal institutions) found a pool of captive consumers willing to pay high prices for their dubious credentials. And businesses, which had a dominant edge in the slack labor market, had the luxury of tossing out applicants without impressive educational histories.

But now that the labor market is tightening, each of these dynamics is changing, and the artificially inflated value of a college degree may be starting to come back down to earth. USA Today reports:

Less educated workers are suddenly hot commodities. […]

Openings that traditionally have gone to college graduates, such as in sales, are being filled by less educated applicants, Glaser says. Tech companies, meanwhile, are finding programmers among high school graduates who have some coding experience and raw talent. With employers placing more emphasis on skills than educational background, staffing giant Manpower revived its MyPath program in May to train applicants’ for its clients’ open positions, says Senior Vice President Kip Wright.

Companies are also relying more on aptitude tests, says Jeanne Branthover, a partner in executive recruiting firm DHR International.

“It’s no longer, ‘Tell me what you did in school,’ ” she says. “Now it’s. ‘I want to know how you think.’”

This trend couldn’t be more welcome. As we’ve noted before, college—at least for many students, and in many areas of study—”functions more and more as a signaling device for employers and a networking tool for the middle and upper classes rather than as a rigorous educational program.” There are a number of interests that would like to see this system sustained—academic bureaucracies, downwardly mobile children of the rich, and investors in student debt chief among them. But employers, students, and the public at large are all better served by a job market that allocates opportunities based on actual skills and knowledge, rather than empty letters on a resume.

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