Graduates pose for photographs during Yale University’s May 2013 commencement in New Haven, Conn. (Jessica Hill/AP)

For decades, it’s been the best marketing pitch for college and university admissions offices: the so-called “degree premium.”

That’s how much more a typical bachelor’s degree recipient earns compared with a high school graduate. And since the 1980s, the gap in earnings between the two has been getting wider as college graduates pull away from those with just a high school diploma.

But a new study of the degree premium, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, finds that its growth has flattened in recent years. While the premium grew rapidly in the 1980s — mostly because of the decline of manufacturing jobs that required just a high school diploma — its growth slowed in the 1990s, followed by a small uptick in the first decade of the new millennium.

Since 2010, however, the premium has largely remained unchanged, said the report’s author, Robert G. Valletta of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. The “patterns indicate that the factors propelling earlier increases in the returns to higher education have dissipated,” Valletta wrote.

And those factors are all related to technology. On one hand, technology investments in the 1980s and 1990s spurred demand for college graduates as jobs increasingly required higher cognitive skills usually associated with a bachelor’s degree. After 2000, technology investments requiring humans slowed down, as the money started to flow to automation and artificial intelligence. That technology at first replaced lower-level jobs, but in recent years automation has begun to supplant jobs held by workers with four-year degrees in all industries.

The result? Workers with a bachelor’s degree are forced into lower-skill jobs with lower wages. In other words, the bachelor’s degree is becoming the new high school diploma. Rather than a ticket to a high-paying, managerial job, the four-year degree is now the minimum ticket to get in the door to any job. Valletta wrote that his findings “suggest rising competition between education groups for increasingly scarce well-paid jobs.”

At the same time, Valletta was careful to note that his findings should not be interpreted to mean that young adults should skip college. Overall, higher education yields positive earnings for workers over their lifetime, he said, but salaries vary greatly by college and major. For example, Valletta wrote that one thing that might be holding down the degree premium is the rapid growth in graduates of for-profit colleges, who generally see minimal bumps — if any — in their earnings after getting a degree.


Source: College Board

Where someone goes to college and what degree a student receives matters greatly to how much graduates earn in the job market during their lifetime. This is perhaps the biggest sea change in recent years for determining the value of higher education; as states release more data on earnings by major and institution, organizations such as the Economist and Money magazine base college rankings on those earnings.

Higher-education leaders loathe such rankings based on graduate earnings (unless, of course, their institutions rank highly). They claim that the value of a bachelor’s degree goes well beyond what someone makes in a job. And they’re right. But that hasn’t stopped them from touting the economic benefits of higher education for the past two decades, including every three years in Education Pays, a massive report from the College Board.

The latest version came out this past week, and it’s not until Page 30 of the 45-page report that the authors move beyond the job benefits of higher education. That’s where the report talks about how college graduates are healthier, more engaged in civic affairs, and more likely to have health insurance and retirement benefits than peers with just a high school diploma. The report also masks the recent flattening of the degree premium by displaying earnings in relation to taxes paid and by looking at salaries from college graduates into their 30s rather than just recent graduates.

Higher education might not like how the national conversation has shifted to focus on the dollar payoff of a college degree, yet as an industry, it has long touted the economic benefits of going to college by riding the coattails of national averages on the degree premium.

Now, the era of averages is over.

Those averages tell you very little about the payoff of going to State U to major in sociology. As a result, colleges and universities are going to need to prove their value or risk losing their best marketing pitch in decades about why it’s worth going to their institution.