Undereducated Americans

The demand for college-educated workers has outpaced the supply, concludes The Undereducated American, a new study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. The weak economy has hidden the problem, says Anthony P. Carnevale, co-author of the report. “In recession and recovery, we remain fixated on the high school jobs that are lost and not coming back. We are hurtling into a future dominated by college-level jobs unprepared.”

The U.S. economy will need an additional 20 million postsecondary-educated workers by 2025, Georgetown predicts. This includes 15 million with bachelor’s degrees, one million with associate degrees and four million with vocational certificates. Adding these new graduates will stop the rise of income inequality, according to the report, which predicts wages will rise 24 percent for high school graduates, 15 percent for those with an associate degree and 6 percent for bachelor’s degree holders.

All this jibes with President Obama’s push to make the U.S. first in the world in college graduates by 2020, points out Inside Higher Ed.

The shortage of college-educated workers has created a rising wage premium, write Carnevale and co-author Stephen Rose.

College graduates earn 74 percent more than do high school graduates today — a gap that is up from 40 percent in 1980.

. . . (Adding 20 million college-educated workers) would not only allow the wage premium to shrink to 46 percent, much closer to what it was in 1980, but increase the gross domestic product by about $500 billion over what it would be without those better-educated, higher-earning workers.

Increasing college-going and graduation rates requires spending more on higher education — unlikely, Carnevale concedes — or making higher ed more efficient.

Higher education has not historically been inclined to look for efficiency, but it is likely that “as money slims down, there will be kicking and screaming, and higher ed will move toward efficiencies,” he said.

A bachelor’s degree pays off even for secretaries, plumbers and cashiers, asserts New York Times columnist Dave Leonhardt, citing the Georgetown report. Blue-collar workers with a bachelor’s degree earn more and they’re healthier and happier than their high-school-educated colleagues.

“Sending more young Americans to college is not a panacea,” says David Autor, an M.I.T. economist who studies the labor market. “Not sending them to college would be a disaster.”

About 33 percent of young adults earn a bachelor’s degree and another 10 percent receive a two-year degree, Leonhardt writes.

Financial aid cuts the cost:  “Average net tuition and fees at public four-year colleges this past year were only about $2,000 (though Congress may soon cut federal financial aid).”

Meanwhile, the wage premium for college graduates has soared.

According to the Hamilton Project, “college tuition in recent decades has delivered an inflation-adjusted annual return of more than 15 percent. For stocks, the historical return is 7 percent. For real estate, it’s less than 1 percent.”

Perhaps “college filters out people with low cognitive ability, low conscientiousness, and other adverse traits,” writes Arnold Kling.

My elitism comes from the few years I spent as an adjunct at George Mason. The typical undergrad in my course could not write a paper or solve an algebra problem. I doubt that adding more students at this margin is the way to raise people’s incomes.

College attainment will boost economic growth only if it increases cognitive skills, responds Andrew Gillen of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, citing studies by Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann. “Recent research (such as Academically Adrift) calls into question how much college boosts cognitive skills,” wrote Gillen in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed.

I don’t see much point in sending more high school graduates to college to take eighth-grade reading, writing and math.

About Joanne


  1. Idiotic…once again, confusion of knowledge with certification, and a demand for additional funding to cover up existing system failures.

    For example: many manufacturers have expressed frustration about not being able to find people who can read a ruler or even being able to understand fractions so that thet can learn to do so. I guess this guy’s answer would be to establish a two-year associate program in ruler-reading. Maybe we could then follow it up with a 4-year college degree in micrometer-reading.

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    wrt results, we have a chicken-egg question. We have a correlation/causation question.
    We have a question of credentialing versus education as preparation for a job.
    We have the more basic question of credentialing; if the applicant has a four-year degree, the chances are better than average the applicant can write a complete, coherent sentence and make change.
    We have a question of how long the applicant will stay with us. There are still philosophy majors–hope there always will be–but how long will the applicant stay in an entry-level management job if the first love is…philosophy?
    We have another question; if the pre-application experience–in this case college–is important to the job, why? Engineers, we can figure that one out. Other than STEM degrees, what does the four-year degree tell us? Guy managed to keep his partying under control for four years is what it tells us. Speaking broadly and crudely. Which is not a bad thing to know about somebody.
    So take that guy and compare him with a high-school graduate with four years’ military service. Better bet?

  3. For example: many manufacturers have expressed frustration about not being able to find people who can read a ruler or even being able to understand fractions so that thet can learn to do so.

    The above sentence shows what is wrong with our school systems (K-12) today. Those concepts were actually TAUGHT at one point in time when I attended public school in the late 60’s to 1981 when I graduated.

    Students today graduate with a PILE of debt, and no chances at all to even pay it back, while receiving very little in return for all that expensive education (many more drop out of college while racking up debt as well). I’m a person who believes college today is a becoming a first class ripoff (since it’s a business anymore).

    Go to google and search for ‘is college a rip-off john stossel’, there is about an 8 minute youtube clip showing what many think of college today.

  4. No one who cites John Stossel for anything other than an example of intellectual dishonesty, journalistic malpractice, and outright lying is worth listening to.

  5. Michael E. Lopez says:

    To my knowledge, there isn’t a job in the world that requires a college degree, though there are many people who require college degrees of the people they hire, and there are some jobs that require a certain amount of knowledge before you can start learning the ropes.

    But that’s not the same thing.

    I’m with David Foster on this: knowledge is one thing, credentialing another.

  6. Foobarista says:

    It’s all about the College Cargo Cult: if people with degrees are doing well, it’s the degree that’s doing it, not the people.

    So, let’s get more people degrees – even if we severely water them down – and we’ll have more people doing well. And if we build landing strips, the gods will send us cool stuff!

  7. Here is what Marty Nemko says about the Bachelor’s Degree being the most overrated product in the US:


    Also, in this youtube clip, Marty Nemko is one of the persons that Stossel interviews:

    Mike, take a look at both of those links and tell me if I’m blowing smoke. The BS that colleges put out today is astounding (go major in journalism, great degree, what the college doesn’t tell you that you have a 1 in 8 chance of landing a job inside of your field).

    Pushing everyone to go to college when the majority of jobs today don’t actually require it (a shell game that HR weenies love to play) is just outright fraud.


  8. Michael, the problem with HR departments is that they tend to be staffed with persons who have been told that they must have a ‘degree’ to qualify for the job. I’d rather find someone who actually KNOWS how to do the job, not someone who has a degree in it and is clueless.

  9. “…I don’t see much point in sending more high school graduates to college to take eighth-grade reading, writing and math….”

    And if you look at “success rates” – the rate at which college students who have to take remedial classes at four year institutions graduate – you’ll probably see even less point to the exercise. It’s also fair to ask, why is it the job of four year colleges to handle kids who aren’t college-ready?

    “…There are still philosophy majors–hope there always will be–but how long will the applicant stay in an entry-level management job if the first love is…philosophy?…”

    I knew a mailman once who was, by education, a philosopher. He loved his job – lots and lots and lots of time to walk and think.

    I do believe that, as a number of people have suggested, one of the reasons that college graduates fare better economically is that a lot of the”better jobs” filter applicants by whether or not they have a college degree.

    As has also been suggested, people who have the cognitive ability and willingness to stick it out for a four year degree likely have greater aptitude for things that can help them perform and advance in fields in which their degree is not required. But here’s the thing – they may do just as well or better with four additional years of experience in the field, without incurring either the direct or opportunity costs of spending four years in college.

  10. Here are quotes between Linda Emery (future wife of martial arts legend Bruce Lee) and Bruce Lee:

    Linda Emery: “A philosophy major? Now, what can you do with a philosophy major?”
    Bruce Lee: “You can think deep thoughts about being unemployed.”

    Interesting point of view that Mr. Lee had.

  11. Carl Icahn was a philosophy major.

    Your mileage, of course, may vary.

  12. It is rather surprising how fraught this topic has become lately. It seems as if virtually everyone in the blogosphere is issuing blanket statements on the criticality or worthlessness of college.

    The answer lies somewhere between. For some people, college is a good and worthwhile way to spend four years. It creates meaningful and useful social bonds, allows you to learn things you’ll never have time to learn otherwise, and can prepare you for certain jobs.

    But it isn’t the right choice for everyone. The amount of debt piling up on many students and the lack of viable, enhanced job prospects that come their way as a result of college can create a nearly untenable situation.

    As with most things, the question of whether or not to go to college is one of balance. We may need many more workers with specific skills and abilities in the coming years, but college is likely only one of the ways to get there – we just need to get creative.