Monday, November 21, 2011

College Degrees and Wages

Over the past forty years, the percentage of the American population with college degrees has gone up dramatically, from only about 16 percent in 1970 to nearly 30 percent today.  The gap between the earnings of college graduates and those without degrees has also increased somewhat, from a median income difference of $24,416(in  inflation-adjusted 2008 dollars) in 1970 to $25,885 in 2008. Therein lies a debate. Are we overproducing college graduates? Those who would answer "no"point to the continuing and even slightly growing wage gap. They maintain that the demand for people with degrees must be growing even more rapidly than the supply, and that the United States should therefore continue its efforts to put more sheepskins in more hands.

The problem is that the kinds of jobs that really do require advanced training really haven't been growing as fast as our pool of graduates. The production of degree holders outpaced the percentage of the labor force in professional and technical fields beginning about 1980. In addition, the growth of the undocumented immigrant population is, in part, a reflection of the fact that much of our labor demand is for workers in low-skilled, low-paid occupations.

So why are graduates still making more money? The answer is that credentialization makes relative rewards to credentials a self-fulfilling prophecy. As more employers in the mainstream of our economy use degrees as a gate-keeping strategy, it becomes essential to have a degree for any kind of job, even one in which nothing one supposedly learns in college is put to use. Having a BA becomes an entry-level qualification, and those without it tend to drop further behind, except in cases in which they have some specialized trade skills.

As a degree becomes an entry-level qualification, differentiation among degrees becomes greater. While any BA may have assured one a good job in earlier years, today the competition is between those with high-demand degrees and those with low-demand degrees. So, the relative economic value of a degree in English or philosophy goes down, leaving students to abandon those fields of study. Thus, at least part of the apparent decline of the humanities is paradoxically a result ot their having been put within reach of more people.

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