What a College Degree Will Get You These Days

Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images for UCLA
Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images for UCLA

“Go to college,” they said. “It’s an investment in your future! It’ll be worth it!” they said.

But as time marches on, it looks more and more like ‘they’ were wrong. A college degree was traditionally used as a sort of ticket to the big leagues — proof that you were willing to go through an additional four years or so of schooling in order to become a more highly skilled, sought-after potential hire. On top of that, college used to be fairly affordable.

But these days, a college degree is giving graduates less and less in return for the investment of their time and money — so much less, in fact, that instead of a stepping stone to management or higher-paying fields, a degree is more likely to get you a job on the lower end of the economic spectrum.

According to new research from the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, there is a bit of a paradox in the labor market: people are becoming more and more educated in order to find a good job, and yet, the more educated they become, the harder finding a good job becomes. It doesn’t make a lot of sense on its face, but as time marches on, it’s becoming more and more clear that higher education — and the immense amount of debt that comes along with it, in many cases — may not be the best route for a lot of young people.

In a nutshell, the details from the Washington Center for Equitable Growth show one glaring reality: college grads are generally worse-off now than they were 15 years ago. “Between 2000 and 2014 (the last year for which complete data are available), the employment of college-educated workers has increased much more rapidly in low-earning industries than in high-earnings ones,” Austin Clemens and Marshall Steinbaum of the WCEG write.

“Our new analysis of the data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Quarterly Workforce Indicators strongly suggests that college-educated workers are more likely to ‘filter down’ the job ladder than to climb it.”

That, right there, is the big red flag indicating something is askew with the system. The finding that college-educated workers are more likely to descend the economic ladder rather than ascend it points to a fundamental breakdown in the entire American system of ‘meritocracy’ — though that may not come as a surprise to a lot of people.

And Clemens and Steinbaum come right to that conclusion at the end of their brief.

“The implication of all of these findings is that the U.S. labor market doesn’t lack for college-educated workers. Workers who have degrees are already taking jobs further and further down the job ladder,” the write. “Encouraging or subsidizing higher education attainment will not solve the fundamental problem facing workers in the current job market: There are not enough jobs.”

It’s a grim assessment, but one that we’re going to have to come to terms with at some point. With automation fast approaching, and the prospect of even fewer jobs being created in the future as a result, the elephant in the room is one that is not being addressed by our nation’s leaders: what are we going to do when a huge chunk of the population has become, for lack of a better word, obsolete?

If it holds true that we have an entire generation of young adults who are spending ever-increasing amounts of money to get degrees, all with the goal to get better jobs, then what happens when those goals fall short on a mass scale? And then, in the wake of those failures, you have a good percentage of the population saddled with huge amounts of student debt?

It’s a slate of tough questions, and there really aren’t any answers at this point. What we do know, and what individuals can take into account, is that many higher education institutions may not be worth the sticker price. Also, if this research holds true, it may not even matter if you have a degree or not — there may not be a place for you in the labor force, post-graduation.

Follow Sam on Twitter @SliceOfGinger

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