It may seem counter-intuitive to suggest that too many students are going to college. It may seem elitist, discriminatory, foolish, or just ignorant. The truth, however, is that easy money and easy grades have made it far too, well, easy to get into college. It is important to understand that every decision has a cost. In economics this is referred to as the opportunity cost. For example, I can either order a pizza for dinner, or I can grab some barbeque. Whichever I choose, I choose at the cost of foregoing the other. I may have been more satisfied with the option not chosen, or I may not have, but I will never know. That is opportunity cost. This is an important concept to understand not only in the study of economics, but in day-to-day life as well. Whether you are choosing a job, a potential spouse, or what to have for dinner on Friday night, you are thinking economically.
Accordingly, the decision whether or not to attend college is very much an economic decision. One can attend and take his chances in the post-graduate job market after being saddled with debt, or one can jump right into the workforce without the college degree, which is increasingly a requirement for jobs once thought not to be on the level of a college graduate. It is certainly possible to live a very happy and comfortable life without that piece of parchment, as college graduates have far from cornered the market on happiness and success, though completion of a college education certainly does not hurt one’s chances.
The ever-popular “college for all” public policy pipedream carries with it certain costs, not all of which are financial. This would be a phenomenal goal – an entire society with at least a college education – if it were feasible. Sadly, it is not, and continuing to hold this goal as the ultimate endpoint is as antiquated an idea as the gramophone or the steam engine. More students are going to college than there are jobs to be had, and the jobs/graduate gap will likely only continue to grow. Between the years 2000 and 2010, college enrollment increased by 37%, from 15.6M to 21M students enrolled, while over the same period of time the U.S. economy had a net jobs loss of 241,000. If we want to send ever more individuals to college, we need to be able to: 1) create jobs at the same, or at least at a comparable pace; and 2) create jobs commensurate with the skills acquired from the job-seekers college experience.
In this we are failing miserably, and our failure will only be exaccerbated as we push more students through the ranks of higher education. There is a growing body of research which shows that college graduates are by and large not finding work which is on the level of possessing a college degree. By this I mean that college graduates more and more often are taking jobs that either do not require a college degree, or else did not require one in the recent past and, logically, still do not. However, due to academic inflation, the job which once required no more than a high school diploma now requires a B.A. This is bad news for everyone, college graduate or not. There is a new minimum credential in town, and it is a most expensive and time-consuming credential to attain.
As more of a good or service is introduced into the market, its value will inevitably decline. This is “Economics 101.” Accordingly, the value of a bachelor’s degree will continue to decline so long as a larger proportion of the population achieves it. Whereas the bachelor’s’ degree was once the signal to employers that the job seeker was a step above the rest, it is now a minimum requirement for many basic jobs. As the bachelor’s degree becomes more of an expectation than an exception, it comes to be seen more fully as the replacement for the high school diploma as the minimum accepted credential to enter the workforce. Whereas a B.A. was enough to open most professional doors, it is now only good enough to open menial professional-level opportunities. This leaves the college graduate with yet another choice – to take one’s chances in the job market armed with an increasingly devalued credential, or seek out a way to gain further credentials before making a serious push in the job market, be that an internship, volunteer opportunity, or going back to school to attain advanced credentials. It is the same decision that was made four short years earlier when deciding whether to attend college nor not.
The result, which has only been skimmed over in this article, is that more and more college graduates are either un-, or underemployed. A recent study by Dr. Richard Vedder of Ohio University shows that an increasing number of college grads are taking work that just a few years ago was squarely below their level of knowledge and experience. He states what this article is driving at – that more college degrees do not equal more employment, better employment, and ultimately do not lead to a healthier or stronger economy. To the contrary, it creates a generation of disenfranchisement as an increasing number of college grads are competing for a much smaller number of job openings. Unemployed college graduates do no one any good, least of all themselves.
What are needed are not higher graduation rates. Not at all. What is needed is a higher quality of college graduate. The requirements to enter college need be much more strenuous. This is not a matter of limiting ambition; rather it is a matter of focusing our ambition. Not everyone is made to be a scholar. Some people’s God-given gifts are more tactile. The notion that working with one’s hands is somehow degrading or dishonorable needs to be banished. Success comes when one pursues his talents; there is no strict formula. College, like owning a home, should be earned. Instead, with every passing generation, it is becoming more and more like a toy in a cereal box.
 National Center for Education Statistics: http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=98
 Bureau of Labor Statistics: http://data.bls.gov/pdq/SurveyOutputServlet
 CNBC Report: http://www.cnbc.com/id/100474974