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College degrees becoming the norm, not the exception

It’s now a fact: A college degree has become normal.

So normal that 25 percent of retail employees have one. So do 17 percent of bartenders, 15 percent of taxi drivers and 14 percent of waiters. Go back to 1970 and only 1 percent of taxi drivers had a bachelor’s gegree. These numbers come from the Center for College Affordability in its report called, “Why are College Graduates Underemployed?”

Their basic finding: there are too many Americans with college degrees. As of 2010, there were almost 42 million Americans in the work force with a bachelor’s degree. That sounds like a great achievement, but there were less than 29 million jobs that actually required a college degree.

And of course, the gap keeps widening as nearly 70 percent of high school graduates enroll in college. By 2020, 31 percent of Americans will have a bachelor’s degree, but only 14 percent of jobs will require one.
That’s not to say there will be no job growth in the United States. There will be plenty, but most of the growth will come from industries that don’t require four-year degrees.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted the top 30 areas of growth until 2020. On their list, four will require a bachelor’s degree or higher education levels. Those four: college professors (which implies the expansion of college as an industry), secondary teachers, doctors and accountants. The rest of the jobs will either require an associate’s degree, a high school diploma or nothing at all.

Now is the time to ask this question: is a college education still worth it? For some it absolutely will be, for others it won’t be. Just because more people are graduating from college doesn’t mean there will be enough jobs to support all those degrees. Jobs are only created by economic activity. More graduates mean more competition, which in turn usually suppresses wages because there is a plethora of applicants. That’s not good news for anyone.

Right now, colleges and universities control the narrative. They say high school graduates must attend college. They will live a better life if they do. Politicians say the same thing. So do corporations. But are they doing us a disservice?

Right now, yes.

The current trends show the problems of underemployment getting worse. We owe it to our kids to be honest with them about it. Four-year degrees should be harder to get. The competition should start at the admissions process. There should be fewer of them. Four-year degrees should only be offered in fields that require them.

I don’t have all the answers, but I can read between the lines and the line we are on may very get us lost deep in the woods with no easy way out.