Is higher education a scam?

Forget ‘investment,’ a better way to describe a degree might be ‘gamble’

Is higher education a scam? If the goal is for graduates to become gainfully employed and contribute to economic productivity, then it just might be. Writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Innovations” blog, Ohio University economist, Richard Vedder, mines through American employment data for college graduates available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), for a post titled “The Great College Degree Scam.”

What he found was that “approximately 60 percent of the increase in the number of college graduates from 1992 to 2008 worked in jobs that the BLS considers relatively low skilled—occupations where many participants have only high school diplomas and often even less.”

To put it another way, between 1992 and 2008, there were roughly 20 million employed graduates added to the American workforce, but only 8 million of that increase were employed in college level jobs, while 12 million, or 60 per cent of the increase, were working in low skilled occupations.

So, while in 2008, 65 per cent of total, or 49.35 million, employed graduates were working in college level jobs, Vedder’s analysis demonstrates that the chances of landing such a job with a college education has been steadily declining over time. In 1992, roughly 82 per cent of the 28.9 million employed college graduates were working in college level jobs.

To illustrate what is considered a low skilled job, Vedder uses waiters and cashiers as examples.

In 1992 119,000 waiters and waitresses were college degree holders. By 2008, this number had more than doubled to 318,000. While the total number of waiters and waitresses grew by about 1 million during this period, 20% of all new jobs in this occupation were filled by college graduates. Take cashiers as well. While 132,000 cashiers possessed college degrees in 1992, by 2008, 365,000 cashiers were college graduates. As with waiters and waitresses, 20% of new cashiers since 1992 are college graduates.

Of course, people can pursue an education for reasons other than employment or economic gain, but that is not how education is marketed either in the United States or in Canada, and creeping credentialism has long been flagged as a problem on both sides of the border.

The obvious beneficiaries of ever increasing enrolment in college and universities are, of course, the institutions themselves, who gain tuition and funding for each student they admit, but also businesses who can use the holding of a degree as a signal device without having to invest resources into properly vetting job candidates. And, as Vedder notes, the trend points to growing inefficiencies in the education system. Whereas not that long ago, it took the system 12 or 13 years to prepare most people for adulthood, it now takes 17 or 18 years.

Not exactly the type of information to find its way into university recruitment pamphlets, is it? Students and parents might fairly ask: at what point is pursuing a degree no longer an “investment” but a “gamble”?

UPDATE: A more complete study based on Vedder’s research was released Thursday.

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