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For several years running now, with dueling reports and "Jane, you ignorant slut"-style op-eds in these pages and elsewhere, Richard Vedder and Anthony Carnevale have been arguing about the influence of college-going in the job market. To greatly oversimplify, Carnevale, a Georgetown University labor economist, is "pro": college credentials help people's employment prospects, he asserts, and the country will need more workers with degree-certified skills in the years to come, not fewer.
Vedder, an emeritus economics professor and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, takes the "con" view: the rapid upturn in the number of Americans with degrees has resulted in many of them taking jobs that don't require advanced skills, inflating the requirements for those jobs and squeezing many non-degreed people out of jobs. Which leads him to argue that too many Americans are going to college, especially in pursuit of bachelor's degrees and higher.
This is not just some theoretical argument between two wonky economists; their views lead directly to questions of whether the United States is overinvesting or underinvesting in programs and policies to sustain or bolster access to higher education, at a time when the federal government (backed by a growing chorus of influential foundations and higher ed organizations) is pursuing an ambitious strategy to significantly increase the proportion of Americans with postsecondary credentials.
In a report released today, Vedder and two co-authors up the ante in the debate. The study, "Why Are Recent College Graduates Underemployed? University Enrollments and Labor Market Realities," expands on previous writings by Vedder and others. Vedder and his co-authors (and CCAP colleagues), Christopher Denhart and Jonathan Robe, cite federal Bureau of Labor Statistics data to show that nearly half of the 41.7 million graduates of four-year colleges in the work force hold jobs that require less than a bachelor's degree (as determined by the BLS).
That, the authors argue, is largely because the country has cranked out so many more college graduates in recent decades that their numbers outstrip the number of jobs in the country that require such advanced skills. Employers have slowly and steadily begun filling those jobs with degreed candidates, given the extent to which many use degrees as a (sometimes flawed, Vedder et al argue) proxy and "signaling device" to identify potential workers.
Beyond the high-level numbers, the study digs into specific professions, citing BLS data showing dozens of job categories filled by millions of college-educated workers even though the bureau deems them to require a high-school diploma or less, including sales representative, office clerk, retail salesperson, cashier and waiter/waitress.
The authors argue that the mismatch they perceive will worsen in the future, with the number of college-educated people expected to grow twice as fast as the number of jobs requiring a bachelor's degree or more over the next two decades. The problem will worsen even more, they say, if the aggressive "completion agenda" embraced by President Obama and others reaches its ambitious goals, as seen in the chart below.
Vedder and his co-authors see several possible outcomes going forward. They project that as job prospects for college graduates tumble because of the intensified competition, more will opt for skipping the expense of all but the best traditional colleges altogether and choose from among the increasing alternative providers of training and credentials. But it's also possible, they posit, that more and more Americans -- seeing that their bachelor's degree no longer gives them an edge in the job market -- will strive for ever-higher degrees. The result, they joke (sort of), would be "a master’s degree in Janitorial Studies within a decade or two, and anyone seeking employment as a janitor will discover no one will hire unless proof of possession of such a degree is presented."
More seriously, they challenge the wisdom of the “college for all” movement, as they call it. "Does it make sense to become the world’s leader again in the proportion of young adults with college degrees? Is the goal of individuals like President Obama or groups like the Lumina Foundation to increase college degree attainment desirable? Should we look for new and cheaper ways to assure employee competency? Should we invest less in four year degree programs and more in cheaper training, including high school vocational education that once was fashionable?" (While President Obama has indeed called for more four-year college graduates, he has also pushed for improvement of vocational training at community colleges, and stressed the benefits of training in one- and two-year programs.)
Carnevale, director of the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce and Vedder's regular sparring partner, took issue both with the authors' overarching analysis and with some of their specific findings. Noting that college graduates continue to earn significantly more in the job market than do those without a degree, "you can't have a 48 percent surplus of college graduates and an 84 percent college wage premium over high school," Carnevale wrote via e-mail. "This advantage wouldn't have been growing along with the number of college graduates since 1983. The market is very responsive to labor supply.... If there was an over production the employers would've figured it out some time over the past 30 years."
More specifically, he challenges Vedder's argument regarding sales representatives in the wholesale and manufacturing industries. BLS deems those high school jobs, and notes that 47 percent of the people in those positions have B.A.s. "What Vedder doesn't point out is that sales representatives with B.A.s make $73,000 a year compared with sales representatives with high school degrees who only make $38,000 a year.... This is one example of many."