22 October 2010

Rethinking "going to college"

This week the Chronicle of Higher Education offered the chart above and asked "why did these people go to college?"
Over 317,000 waiters and waitresses have college degrees (over 8,000 of them have doctoral or professional degrees), along with over 80,000 bartenders, and over 18,000 parking lot attendants. All told, some 17,000,000 Americans with college degrees are doing jobs that the BLS says require less than the skill levels associated with a bachelor’s degree...

Now it is true that college has a consumption as well as investment function. People often enjoy going to classes, just as they enjoy watching movies or taking trips. They love the socialization dimensions of schooling—particularly in this age of the country-clubization of American universities. They may improve their self-esteem by earning a college degree. Yet, at a time when resources are scarce, when American governments are running $1.3-trillion deficits, when we face huge unfunded liabilities associated with commitments made to our growing elderly population, should we be subsidizing increasingly problematic educational programs for students whose prior academic record would suggest little likelihood of academic, much less vocational, success?
The article offers one viewpoint on a complicated issue; personally I think it's a rather narrow-minded viewpoint at that.  There are some thoughtful and well-informed counterpoints presented in the responses to the article.


  1. Seems odd, too, that it's so binary. A lot of the jobs seem, from the worker's point of view, possibly temporary: a grad student working at an amusement park over a summer; a would-be film maker waiting tables; etc.

  2. They're also ignoring that a number of jobs seem to require a bachelors, even when it has no bearing to the job at hand. And the companies where you can only get promoted so high unless you have a degree.

    It's not just the education proponents, it's also the job market demanding it. In fact, I would guess that the job market demanding it came first...

  3. So we should condemn those who don't test to some academic standard to a life of little ongoing education except for special work skills, low income, and equip them less for engaging a complex society?

    Sounds like Gattaca. The answer to limited education resources is to provide more resources. The sure way to a dangerously stratified culture is to limit educational opportunity.

    The U.S. imperial forces equal 46.5 percent of the total expenditures for military worldwide. Let's cut that in half as a start...

  4. These people have these jobs because these are the jobs that are hiring.

    I want to know how long these people have been in these jobs. 10 years? 15? Somehow I doubt that. When I was a tech support trainer, I had people in my class from GED up to MBAs and PhDs. Why? Because they couldn't get a job in their field, and a dollar made working as a TSR is worth the same as a dollar working in a "professional" job. They would get hired, stick around for a bit, then leave to something in their field.

    And I wouldn't knock how much bartenders and parking lot attendants make. A friend who used to work the airport shuttle pulled down around $60/k a year, mostly in tips. He did it for a couple years, got tired of the exhaust, then went back to marketing.

  5. I have a bachelors of science in cell and molecular biology and i am a delivery driver for pizza hut. guss who's hiring?

  6. As hard as it is to believe, not everyone has to go to college. Being a blue collar worker is not a crime yet. I have made a six figure income for the last 3 years.
    How you ask, by applying my trade to it's fullest and being in demand because I know my JOB. I am a Welder / Fabricator. This a highly skilled position which can not be taught in a college setting.You are taught the basics by a tradesmen. It is through experience and mistakes that I have learned. By the way I have an above average IQ, so not all bluecollar people are dumbies either

  7. @mr blue collar
    i think a lot of the people i met in college would have done well to follow your example. they didn't really want to be there but it's "the thing to do" so they did it. i went to college because i wanted to study in a research lab. not because i couldn't think of anything else to do.

  8. It's a matter of competition. I have always had jobs that did not require a college degree. But since I HAVE one, I was hired for those positions over someone who does not.

    I have also competed for jobs that required a degree, and was passed over because the competition was stronger.

  9. Building on the welder's comments above, I believe that a fundamental cause for these superfluous degrees is the alienation between the sources of jobs and the pools of labor, coupled with an increasing demand for highly unskilled labor.

    A more interesting study might be to track the employment of individuals through time.

    The result of these causes is not only a excess of degrees where they are not required, but also in the range of available employment for any given degree. In any other field, production above demand is seen as unsustainable, yet somehow academia narrowly asserts that producing ever greater numbers of degree-wielding individuals will increase demand for these attributes.

    The blame, therefore, lies in everyone's hands: the academy and secondary schools must be reformulated to cope with their devastating ineffectuality; the job market should be reorganized to demand meaningful and relevant training; corporations should have multi-tiered levels of specialization and should emphasize sustainable employee development (this necessitates both a livable wage and a livable job); and individuals must be held responsible for making wise decisions based on the the above changes.

    Whew! G'luck finding that utopia. As it stands, I'd only expect to see more people with permanently useless degrees, rather than the temporarily useless ones implied by other comments.

  10. I have a bachelors degree but work in retail. My degree was a language degree, so as such I don't have the 'skills' for anything. Having a bachelors degree doesn't prove I can speak Japanese, it merely proves I've started studying it. To prove proficiency in language you need to undertake another test like the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test).


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