Do College Graduates Push High School Graduates out of the Economy?

by Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute

This week, Georgetown’s University’s Center on Education and the Workforce released “Weathering the Economic Storm.” The report makes an intuitive conclusion that the recent “recession hit those with less schooling disproportionately hard.” Data clearly support this conclusion.

But the reason isn’t because they are less educated, per se. The reason is that those with higher levels of education are now taking jobs that were previously sourced by those with high school credentials. So, does a higher education credential give you a better opportunity for employment? Yes, no argument. But not because of their higher education, but rather, because the workforce will take the highest education available for a particular position, regardless of skill set or need.

A larger percentage of college graduates are now working in fields outside their specialty. Traditional jobs once held by high school graduates are now being filled by college graduates who would otherwise be unemployed.

So when the report asks whether college is worth the cost, the likely conclusion is “yes.” But is it worth $100,000+ for an entry-level $25,000 social work position?

“In jobs at every skill level and in many different occupations, the better-educated applicant has the edge. For workers, the findings point the way to acquiring the skills that the market needs and values. For students and their parents who are contemplating whether higher education is a good value, these findings make clear that the answer is a resounding yes.”

This is a complete misguided conclusion in the report. First of all, a policy report probably shouldn’t use the term “resounding yes.” It’s just not what we do. Regardless, and perhaps more importantly, the answer is clearly NOT a resounding yes. It depends on a variety of factors, including the type of education and employment we are referring to. The truth is, higher education is also not very good at supplying the “skills that the market needs and values.” Business and Industry have complained for years that this is the case. So for a report to conclude otherwise is misguided and beyond the policy pale.

College is too expensive in America. It takes too long. And its return on investment is at an all-time low. We are at a tipping point in the United States where the cost (including opportunity cost) of higher education is beginning to outweigh the benefit for many individuals (not all). This is our opportunity to take a comprehensive look at how we “do” higher education in the United States. It needs to more closely map the needs of business and industry, provide a much lower-cost solution for all students, and allow students to complete in a much faster fashion.

A few weeks ago, Lumina for Education president Jamie Merisotis commented that we need to push more stackable certificates, and he’s correct: we need more solutions that provide more flexibility for student choice. A student with a few short-term certificates can surely do what many of our four-year BA graduates are doing in the workforce right now: entry level work.

But all of this requires us to have honest conversations: not propaganda based on the “more is better” argument by the higher education lobby. More isn’t always better. It’s just more expensive, and students and parents are paying a majority of the cost.

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