Last September, I wrote a lengthy cover story asking whether a college diploma is still worth it. In some sense, it obviously is--there's a substantial wage premium for college graduates. But in other ways, it's very much an open question. For starters, the marginal kids who we are now adding to college classes may not get the benefit of the degree: they're more likely to drop out, and less likely to have the complementary assets, like connections and social capital, that help maximize the value of your BA.
More worrying is the way in which a BA is now becoming a minimum requirement for jobs that simply don't require any of the skills you learn in college: receptionist, file clerk, secretary. The New York Times has a lengthy article exploring this phenomenon through the lens of a law firm which requires everyone, even the lowliest clerical worker, to have a college degree:
This prerequisite applies to everyone, including the receptionist, paralegals, administrative assistants and file clerks. Even the office “runner” — the in-house courier who, for $10 an hour, ferries documents back and forth between the courthouse and the office — went to a four-year school.
“College graduates are just more career-oriented,” said Adam Slipakoff, the firm’s managing partner. “Going to college means they are making a real commitment to their futures. They’re not just looking for a paycheck.”
Economists have referred to this phenomenon as “degree inflation,” and it has been steadily infiltrating America’s job market. Across industries and geographic areas, many other jobs that didn’t used to require a diploma — positions like dental hygienists, cargo agents, clerks and claims adjusters — are increasingly requiring one, according to Burning Glass, a company that analyzes job ads from more than 20,000 online sources, including major job boards and small- to midsize-employer sites.
This up-credentialing is pushing the less educated even further down the food chain, and it helps explain why the unemployment rate for workers with no more than a high school diploma is more than twice that for workers with a bachelor’s degree: 8.1 percent versus 3.7 percent.
I read this and think of someone like Helen Gurley Brown, who started as a secretary, worked her way up to copywriter, earned the title of highest paid woman in advertising, married a movie producer, wrote a bestselling book, and became the editor of Cosmopolitan. Would such a career be possible nowadays? And if not, why not?
My sense is that it isn't, and not just because there aren't any secretaries. Several times in her career progression, someone in HR would have said, "No, I'm sorry, assistant copywriter requires at least a bachelor's and preferably three years of experience", and that would have been that. To be sure, in a small firm, she might have made it anyway. But her ability to move around would have been hampered by that gap on her resume.
But how likely is it that a BA would actually have made her a better secretary, or a better copywriter? Speaking as a former secretary, precisely none of the skills it requires are things that can only--or even best--be acquired in college. And while I have never written ad copy, I find it hard to imagine that ones ability to do so is honed by writing term papers. Sure, it can teach you research skills and perhaps what educators call "critical thinking" (though I believe that the evidence on this is somewhat mixed.) But it's hard to argue that a college education is really necessary to file papers or write ad copy or be a salesman; somehow, people used to do all these things without one.
There's also the fact that as economist Bryan Caplan pointed out to me, it's actually fairly easy to get a Princeton education for free, as long as you don't want the degree: just walk in off the street and sit in on the classes. It's unlikely that a professor will kick you out, or even notice. Yet no one does this--while plenty of Princeton students try to avail themselves of the benefits of a Princeton degree without getting the education that is supposed to go with it.
Caplan argues that to a large extent, the BA is becoming what a high school diploma became before it: a signal to employers that you are not stupid, lazy, or poor enough to drop out before you've finished your education. That's valuable for the employers, but it's increasingly expensive for the students, without necessarily preparing them to better do their work. And it's far from clear that it's worth removing people from the workforce for four years in order to prepare them to do sales, or manage an office.
That's not because managing an office or sales aren't important--these are hard jobs that I presume I would be very bad at. But college is not like some sort of all-purpose herbal supplement that cures bunions and also colic; it teaches specific skills. And it isn't even the only way that the most necessary of those skills can be taught.
But still, the kids keep pouring into school, at great expense, because of a sort of educational ratchet effect: if lots of people have a college degree, it's easier for employers to require one as a way to winnow down the resume pile--and the signalling effect of not having one is stronger.
There's nothing wrong with giving kids more education. But I think there is something wrong when we set up a system where Helen Gurley Brown, or her modern-day equivalent, gets stuck in the secretarial pool forever because they're missing a piece of paper.