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Degree inflation: Tight job market has been flooded by too many college graduates

Michelle Naef, front, right, and Mercedes Solari, center, join others in the English 1010 class at Salt Lake Community College in Taylorsville. Graduation rates Monday, July 30, 2012
Michelle Naef, front, right, and Mercedes Solari, center, join others in the English 1010 class at Salt Lake Community College in Taylorsville. Graduation rates Monday, July 30, 2012
Scott G Winterton, Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

It's harder than ever to get a good job without post-secondary education. And now, many not-so-good jobs require a college degree, too. That degree will be expensive to obtain, of course. But some of the jobs that require it are hardly worth its cost.

A college degree has become the gateway for hiring at many companies across the United States, and not just for the lucrative jobs. Receptionists, administrative assistants, file clerks and even office runners making $10 per hour need a four-year degree to be considered for jobs in cities with well-educated populations, said a Feb. 19 story in The New York Times. A tight job market makes it practical for job recruiters to require college degrees as an easy way to weed their way through huge stacks of job applications.

"Degree inflation," as economists call the phenomenon, is infiltrating the job market for many positions that haven't previously required a college diploma, like dental hygienists, cargo agents, clerks and claims adjusters, the story said. Naturally, the drive toward higher credentials for these jobs pushes workers with no more than a high school diploma ever further down the job market food chain. The unemployment rate for college graduates is 3.7 percent, versus 8.1 percent for workers with a high school diploma only, the story said.

In 2006, Noel Weyrich wrote about the problem of credential inflation in University of Pennsylvania's The Pennsylvania Gazette:

"A growing number of scholars believe that the vast expansion of higher education in the United States has been unhealthy for society and academe alike," Weyrich wrote. "Sociologists contend that higher education has gained vast public subsidies by promising to increase workplace productivity and improve social mobility — while failing at both tasks."

A similar concern was raised in a 2002 opinion piece in Chronicle of Higher Education by Randall Collins, who described "a higher education system locked in a cycle of expanding access to degrees, which dilutes the value of those degrees in the employment market, which, in turn, drives a portion of those degree-holders back to campus for still more advanced degrees," according to Weyrich's summation of Collins' article.

For many workers, having that college degree does pay off eventually, The New York Times story said. The diploma holder who takes a file clerk job and turns out to be a whiz might soon be promoted to a position better aligned with their education.

Still, degree inflation raises the threshold for getting a good job to an artificial height, blocking opportunities for willing workers. It's a problem that hits women in the workplace hardest, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

"Women make up around 96 percent of secretaries and administrative workers," the Bloomberg story said. "And admin jobs offer — or used to offer — one of the best paths to a middle-class income for women without college diplomas."

Degree inflation is making those jobs harder to get, at a time when they are disappearing anyway. Executives are booking their own meetings and travel, and other administrative work in today's offices requires advanced skills. Women lost 925,000 jobs in office and administrative support occupation between 2009 and 2011, the story said.

Some policy watchers are calling for changes.

"Requiring college degrees for jobs that don’t call for that kind of education is a sign that America is overinvesting in the wrong kinds of education," according to American Interest, a political blog. Author Walter Russell Mead suggests that new hires should be made on the basis of knowledge-based testing, and new laws should make it illegal to discriminate against people who don't have degrees for jobs that really don't require them.

A July 2012 story in the Chronicle of Higher Education said solutions might be imminent:

"Developments in online education, independent certification of competencies, e-portfolios, and the like may soon help redress this severe socioeconomic problem," the story said. "Then people will be evaluated on the basis of their actual knowledge and skills and not on their paper credentials.