Is the United States producing an overeducated class with few prospects of holding a job commensurate with their education?
That appears to be the case.
Brandeis economist Nader Habibi wrote that too many politicians and parents ignore “an inconvenient truth: a large number of graduates in recent years have not been able to find well-paying jobs that actually require a degree.” Just prior to the pandemic, 40 percent of recent graduates worked in jobs for which they were overeducated.
Nor, for many graduates, is this simply a temporary, transitional phase. Habibi cites a 2014 study by economists affiliated with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York that found that since 1990, at least 30 percent of all workers (aged 22 to 65) with college degrees were consistently employed in jobs that do not require a college degree 10 years after graduation.
A 2015 analysis of earnings reported on the College Scorecard by Kevin Carey found that more than half of students at hundreds of colleges earned just $25,000 10 years after enrolling.
The mismatch between educational attainment and earnings and employment carries not only a high economic cost, but a social and psychological cost as well. This mismatch contributes to credential inflation, which crowds less educated workers out of many job opportunities, while producing high levels of dissatisfaction among many college graduates.
The gap between educational attainment and earnings and employment looms especially large for those with the most education.
One reason that substantial numbers of master’s degree holders can’t repay their college loans is that many master’s programs prepare graduates for jobs in fields, especially those in the arts and humanities, with very poor job prospects.
One common response to underemployment is for the “overeducated” to blame themselves for a failure to be practical or realistic. But perhaps more common is to cast blame elsewhere: at the teachers who encouraged naïve students to pursue big dreams and the institutions that misled vulnerable students about their postgraduation prospects, or to a society that propagates illusions and false promises.
Sometimes, the problem of overeducation is treated as a sick joke involving victim blaming. After all, what did you expect, getting a degree in _______? Fill in the blank.
At other times, it’s dismissed with a simplistic solution -- why not become a K-12 teacher?
But this is anything but a joke for those who pursued advanced education, whether out of passion or status hunger or misplaced hopes. It is a personal tragedy.
Much of the literature on overeducation represents a thinly disguised attack on the call for “college for all.” Please do not associate me with that camp. I believe that increased access to advanced education is incontrovertibly a good thing. It not only contributes to better physical and mental health but to greater civic involvement, cultural engagement and, above all, a more reflective and richer intellectual life.
But critics of overeducation do make a point that shouldn’t be ignored. Underemployment tends to contribute to high levels of societal unrest and social strain. This certainly occurred in Greece, Italy, Spain and large parts of Latin America and the Near and Middle East, where a large, deeply resented and frustrated population segment emerged, profoundly alienated from its society.
What, you might ask, can be done? Let's do what we can in our neck of the woods.
1. Our institutions of higher learning need to be honest and transparent.
The College Scorecard is not enough. Nor is the stale warning "Look to the left, look to the right; two of you will not be in the academy in 10 years." Students need straight talk from academics and advisers. Data on postgraduation employment outcomes need to be collected and publicized.
2. Departments need to take responsibility for program outcomes.
Faculty within specific programs need to reckon with their graduates’ employment record and ask themselves whether the program’s cost and time to degree make sense and whether the program meets a genuine market need.
3. Programs need to prepare graduates for the 21st-century economy.
Today’s economy demands adaptability, resilience, flexibility, agility and entrepreneurship. Ask yourself: What steps can our program take to open windows into possible careers, improve program offerings and ensure that students acquire the range of skills -- including quantitative or digital or project management skills -- that will enhance their employability?
4. Integrate teaching and research into professional staff positions.
I live my life according to a series of mantras, one of which states, “Being radical means being radical where you are.” In other words, address head-on the problems in your own niche.
Today, the fastest-growing segment of the academy lies in professional staff positions, which are increasingly populated by Ph.D.s. Let’s treat them as the professionals they are, giving them opportunities to teach as well as research support, including time off (for example, 10-month appointments) that will allow them to engage in scholarship.
I am convinced that we have a moral and professional responsibility to better understand how the economy is evolving and to do our darnedest to prepare our graduates for that environment, which will, in most cases, differ from the one we entered.
Higher education is inherently valuable. But it isn’t priceless. Its cost, especially at the master’s level, needs to align with the likely outcome. Otherwise, the cost is exploitative.
Perhaps you remember the conclusion of the BBC version of Defoe’s Moll Flanders: “We all want to do well and do good. May you never have to choose.”
As academics, we define doing well in professional terms, as a matter of professional visibility, reputation and respect. Teaching in a graduate program is, for many of us, a potent status symbol. But let’s not let our professional achievement come at our students’ expense. As Google says, “Don’t be evil.”
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.