More on the College Bubble: Job Outcomes for College Graduates

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute/EPI International

In a follow-up to last week’s commentary, an article in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education reported findings from a Rutgers University study, which shows that recent college graduates are having trouble finding new jobs.

The study of 517 students who graduated between 2006 and 2010 found that only 53 percent currently hold a full-time job, 21 percent are in graduate school, 12 percent work part of the time, and 9 percent are unemployed, all proof that graduation from college clears but one hurdle on the pathway to a career. Less than half said their work was tied to their studies, and 40 percent said their jobs did not require a college degree.

Therein lay our conundrum. We need to ask the tough questions of why we are pushing students through so much education, much of which is of suspect quality and provides students with limited tools to deal with the “new” economy.

We do it because it is the “right” thing to do, according to proponents. This is the path to guaranteed success because the labor data says so. As illustrated last week, college graduates have lower unemployment rates than other, non-college graduates. As well, college graduates have higher incomes than other students.

But the lines are blurring and the gaps are narrowing. Yes, I can still use data to show that students with a BA earn more than a $1 million more than a high school graduate over the course of the lifetime. However, it should be clearly understood that this does not consider the following: the increasing cost of college and the opportunity cost associated to it; the flattening of salaries of college graduates (lower levels already flattened); and the increasing employment challenges of recent graduates.

As alluded to in the Rutgers’ study, recent grads are having trouble finding not only jobs in their fields, but jobs at all. It’s almost sad the resumes that cross my desk with BAs, MAs, and even Ph.D.s who are prospecting for jobs that well beneath their capabilities. For business owners, while sad, it presents a huge opportunity, not just because there is a lot of “talent” out there, but because they can be hired for bargain rates compared to a decade ago. And all employers are doing this.

One cannot escape the economic reality that a glut—that is, an oversupply of goods and/or services—in any sector of the economy causes prices/salaries to fall. We are seeing it in education. With the exception of executive and high-level management positions, salaries are going south or, at a minimum, flat-lining.

To be both fair and real, the Rutgers’ study is limited. The survey population is relatively small and represents a small geographic constituency. But it provides, at a minimum, a litmus test to the nation. Most disturbing to me is the statistic that said that nine percent of college graduates are unemployed, which is twice the level according to the Bureau of Labor of Statistics. Who is right? Both and neither, I suppose, but it suggests that some areas are definitely facing much bigger troubles than others.

We need to be much more mindful about the endeavor we call higher education. I argue again that we need to investigate, very carefully, this higher education arms race that suggests/requires/demands that all students go to college; that two-thirds of our people have college degrees. From an economic perspective, both individual and societal, we need to think very carefully about what messages we are sending to our youth. Too many graduate from two- and four-year schools wondering what happened to their “glowing future.” Why did they (and their parents) spend $100,000 so they could work at Barnes and Noble?

We need an honest conversation. We need better data. Every college in the nation needs to keep close tabs on this, and it should be demanded that institutions provide high-level reporting on the educational and career outcomes of students at least five-years after graduation.

But the conversation isn’t happening. The major players are on board, so there is no need, apparently, to wonder why we are pushing in this direction. There is little evidence supporting their stance, but here we are. Moving forward. Because we are told it’s the right thing. Lemmings.

Let’s ask the right questions and try and get answers. Let’s move forward prudently, not just “because.” It’s not very academic. Nor prudent.

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About Educational Policy Institute

The Educational Policy Institute is a Washington, DC-based research think tank on education and the social sciences. EPI conducts evaluation and policy studies on various educational issues from Pre-K to workforce outcomes in the United States, Canada, and beyond. Visit us at educationalpolicy.org.
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One Response to More on the College Bubble: Job Outcomes for College Graduates

  1. TomV says:

    While there are plenty of anecdotes one can cite like yours of the student who, with his parents, spent $100,000 on education and is working at Barnes and Noble, the national statistics on unemployment should be the perfect antidote to those stories and lend support to getting an education, and as much of it as you can! Those with a Bachelor’s degree or higher have half the rate of unemployment as those with only a high school education and no college (4.5% vs. 9.7% — see the data at http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.t04.htm ). And those without a high school diploma have three times the unemployment rate (14.6%) of the college graduate.

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