If everyone knows a secret, it’s not a secret. If everyone holds the same competitive advantage, it’s not a competitive advantage. If everyone has a bachelor’s degree to distinguish them in the job market, it’s not a distinguishment. And that’s a phenomenon economists now call “degree inflation.”
Everyone is supposed to go to college these days. It doesn’t matter what you want to be when you grow up–you must earn a college degree. My question is does that really make sense? Do we all need college degrees? Is it at all possible that we’re causing more damage than good with this mindset?
For one, think about the amount of debt we’re asking people to take on in this culture of degree inflation. Some people are borrowing $50,000 or more during college when all they actually want to do is be a landscaper or a carpenter or an electrician or even an administrative assistant. What in the world is the point of borrowing that much money for a degree that isn’t even relevant to one’s career aspirations?
Let me just clearly state that I have no problem with a landscaper or carpenter or administrative assistant attending college. If he or she wants to go to school for the sake of learning, then by all means, please do so. I’m a college professor, after all. I spent a lot of time in college and it was absolutely beneficial to me as a person.
My big issue, though, is when we create this culture of degree inflation by requiring all people to go to college–even those who don’t want to and don’t need to. That doesn’t really do anybody any good. It results in students who are unmotivated, teachers who are frustrated, universities with higher attrition rates, and lots of wasted time and money for everyone involved. Not to mention the resulting degree inflation, which also affects the students who really did everything they were told to do and still suffer because the job market gets flooded with degrees.
This degree flooding has created what the New York Times recently referred to as a “buyer’s market.” The only group that wins from degree inflation I guess is the companies who are hiring. They’re able to be extremely picky about who they hire and they can set very high standards for their new employees. Great, more power for corporations. Just what we need.
That same NYT article discusses a firm in Atlanta that’s now requiring every single employee to hold a bachelor’s degree. Even filing clerks and office runners who make $10/hour.
It’s created a scenario where hiring companies can basically hint that there are thousands of others who would be happy to take your job, so you better toe the line and take what you’re given. Cool, a culture of fear. Great way to motivate people to do their best.
Requiring extensive job qualifications as terms of employment and then paying those employees the bare minimum is not a good way to maximize potential. Do I even need to say that?
Degree Inflation in Higher Education
Of course, this same principle applies to higher education and adjunct hiring practices. Colleges require a graduate degree as a barrier to entry, but because the college teaching market is now also flooded with graduate degree holders (possibly as an upward side effect of bachelor’s degree inflation), it’s a “buyer’s market” for colleges hiring adjuncts.
Just like the Atlanta firm, colleges can maintain a high barrier to entry and still only offer a bare minimum remuneration. This will never change until adjuncts either stop working for these salaries or until people stop going to graduate school to become professors, thereby letting the air out of degree inflation.
Returning to my earlier point, requiring everyone to get a bachelor’s degree removes any competitive advantage associated with earning that degree. Thus, more and more people are now earning graduate degrees in order to set themselves apart. In other words, the master’s is the new bachelor’s.
*You might also like The Cascading Labor Market of Underemployment.