When compared with people who have a high school diploma, graduates of four-year colleges believe they earn, on average, $20,000 more each year as a result of their degree, according to a 2011 report from the Pew Research Center. Their estimate closely matches census data, Pew said.
Yet a degree doesn’t always pay off. In fact, some folks don’t out-earn high school graduates, and they end up dragging staggering amounts of debt all the way into retirement.
This is why the debate about the $1.6 trillion in outstanding student loans should include discussion about a trend that is forcing people to go into debt when perhaps they don’t need to.
Increasingly, employers — private and public — are screening out experienced job applicants just because they don’t have a college degree. Researchers call this “degree inflation.”
During a recent online discussion with readers, this topic came up.
A leading cause of high student loans is “requiring a bachelor’s degree for jobs that really don’t require one,” a reader wrote. “For example, almost all of the new administrative assistants at my job have a B.A. You really don’t need one to answer phones, coordinate schedules and file papers. But because most people now require it, the folks who would do well with those jobs without a degree have to spend the money to get a degree to get the job. It is so maddening.”
Now, before you dash off an email arguing that many administrative assistants have a great deal of responsibility that might require a degree, read the following from another online-chat participant.
“At a lot of smaller companies, the administrative assistant job is more like that of an office manager or an executive assistant,” the reader wrote. “Not only are you going to be in charge of all of the minor clerical duties, but you’ll be working with higher-up executives and taking care of the human resource needs of the company. This means you’re doing everything necessary to keep employers and employees sane. That said, does the position require a B. A.? Maybe. Maybe not.”
Let’s talk about the maybe not.
A 2017 joint report by Harvard Business School, Accenture and Grads of Life discussed the costs of degree inflation for families and businesses. Employers are more often using automated tools that may weed out good job candidates simply because they don’t have a college degree.
“The rising demand for a four-year college degree for jobs that previously did not require one is a substantive and widespread phenomenon that is making the U.S. labor market more inefficient,” the report said. “Companies that insist only on a college degree deny themselves the untapped potential of eager to work young adults as well as experienced, older workers as pools of affordable talent.”
Of course, there are jobs where an advanced degree and specific training are necessary. But think about how you learned to do your job. Experience may have mattered more than the philosophy or biology class you took in college.
Far too often, we are devaluing work experience in favor of a degree that, for many, doesn’t adequately prepare them for a job anyway.
In the Pew report, 57 percent of Americans said the higher-education system in the United States fails to provide students with good value for the money they and their families spend.
Other Pew research found that one-third of Americans who lack a four-year college degree report that they didn’t apply for a job they felt they were qualified for because the position required a bachelor’s degree.
Obtaining a diploma doesn’t alone make you more qualified.
Another reader wrote: “At our union convention recently, we heard from a labor leader — a decorated combat veteran who served in Iraq — being denied a mid-level management job when he returned, because he didn’t have a degree. He led platoons, managed personnel, protected his fellow soldiers, took military leadership training, and more. He joined a program called ‘Helmets to Hard hats’ and, after training, was placed in a solid union job. A degree isn’t everything.”
The nonprofit program the reader mentioned helps military service members transition to a career in the construction industry.
With the cost of college crippling so many borrowers, it’s time to concede that, for many jobs in America, experience should matter just as much as a college degree.
Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to wapo.st/michelle-singletary.