Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues.”     Abraham Lincoln

July 26, 2009

Why Do We Need Expensive College Degrees to Get A Simple Job?

by tarran
Enrollment in U.S. higher education, by institution type: 1967–97

Enrollment in U.S. higher education, by institution type: 1967–97

Until 1960 or so, the percentage of people getting college degrees was relatively low. There was plenty of work for people who had ‘merely’ graduated from high school, and a high school graduate could support a family.

Then came the Vietnam War, where the United States government would happily enslave high-school graduates, but not students in college. The number of students entering college zoomed upward, and the number of colleges proliferated.

But the war ended in the early 1970′s, and the U.S. government stopped enslaving young men, although it does reserve the capability to start doing so at any time.

Yet, despite this pressure, the number of people entering college continued to increase. Why? Quite simply because it started to become difficult for a high school graduate to find a job. An increasing number of companies started demanding a college degree for jobs that clearly don’t require anything more than the education that could be acquired at a half-way decent high school.

Why would employers do this? What could prompt such a strange change? As usual, dig down into the matter, and the answer becomes clear.  In a paper posted at the John William Pope Canter for Higher Education, Bryan O’Keefe and Richard Vedder argue that the reduced employment opportunities for high-school graduates and the resulting rise of the higher education bubble is an unintended consequence of the 1964 Civil Right Act, namely this part of Section VII:

It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer –

(1) to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; or

(2) to limit, segregate, or classify his employees or applicants for employment in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

At the time this law was passed employers routinely classified prospective employees via pre-employment testing.  This testing was used to determine things like knowledge, technical aptitude, personality compatibility and, yes, the race of applicants.  At the time the law was being debated, its opponents raised the objection that this law could outlaw non-racist testing alongside racist testing.  To which the proponents of the bill replied:

There is no requirement in Title VII that employers abandon bona fide qualification tests where, because of differences in background and educations, members of some groups are able to perform better on these tests than members of other groups.  An employer may set his qualification as high as he likes, he may test to determine which applicants have these qualifications, and he may hire, assign, and promote on the basis of test performance.

Of course, like Madison’s claims that the Federal Government would obviously be limited to the powers described in Section 8 of Article I of the U.S. Constitution, these legislators claims did not survive actual contact with the courts.  In the case Griggs v. Duke Power, the U.S. Supreme Court described what criteria can be used for pre-employment testing:

  • A test where members of one race performed more poorly than members of another race – demonstrating a “disparate” performance – was assumed to be discriminatory with respect to race, even if that was not the intention of the test.
  • Tests with disparate results are illegal unless the test has a direct business necessity.

Since, most businesses weren’t interested in wasting money on tests that were not necessary to screening out unfit employees or identifying the most fit employees, they were stunned.  The Supreme Court had a very complicated definition of what constituted “Direct Business Necessity”, one that was difficult to meet and gave considerable deference to the employee of the Equal Opportunity Commission who was deciding whether or not to accuse a company of illegal discrimination.  Only the simplest tests, such as requiring a prospective driver to pass a driving test could reasonably pass muster.  Other tests, which businessmen clearly felt were useful to reducing the risk of hiring the wrong person for the job,  now could get them sued.

Companies began casting about for a way to screen out the-incompetent or unfit in a way that would not result in them being sued.  The simplest solution is to demand a college degree.  Any racial discrimination demonstrated in the pool of degreed people would be the colleges’ liability, and the business could get on with the business of hiring new employees without being worried about lawsuits.

It has taken thirty years for this unfortunate unintended consequence to play out;

  • People entering the workforce have been kept idle for four years unnecessarily.
  • People entering the workforce are saddled with debts that are difficult to pay off.
  • Colleges have gotten away with lowering educational standards because their graduates are in such high demand.

When summed across the millions of people who have entered the workforce in the last two decades, the economic costs imposed by this well-intended but horrendously misguided effort are staggering.  They include

  • Almost 100 million man-years’ lost productivity.
  • An additional 10 million man-years spent paying off college loans
  • Increased pressure on children to engage in organized activities designed to win the child a scholarship at the expense of their personal development.

Had the proponents of the Civil Rights Act limited their aim at racial discrimination by the government, they would have been crafting a very socially beneficial law.  But by seeking to use the law to force people not to racially discriminate, they wreaked massive damage on the economy.  Ironically, this damage disproportionately affects minorities who are far more likely to be at the mercy of awful government schools than other ethnic/racial groups.

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14 Comments

  1. tarran,

    “…Colleges have gotten away with lowering educational standards because their graduates are in such high demand….”

    I don’t think that this is the primary reason.

    As the government high schools produce graduates with ever declining aptitudes/achievements, the colleges would risk their tuition revenues were they to maintain educational standards to the point of reducing their graduation rates. The employer typically cares little at all about what, if anything, the four year graduate learns in college. All that matters is the native aptitude that allowed for competitive admission, and the endurance needed for graduation, and maybe not that. Two year graduates of community colleges and technical institutes are different to a degree, with matching of the courses to the need of some significance, as admission means nothing.

    Regards, Don

    Comment by Don Lloyd — July 26, 2009 @ 8:39 pm
  2. I think there really is a plain old laziness factor here. It’s just easier, especially for a “human resources” person, or an incompetent manager, who has no idea what the real job requires, to slap a bunch of unnecessary requirements on the job description.

    Comment by tfr — July 27, 2009 @ 6:25 am
  3. I believe it has a lot to do with parents wanting their children to be better than themselves. I’m glad my parents pushed me to go to college, something they could not do as recent immigrants in the 70′s. Their dream was to give their children a better life and they knew that education was a big factor.

    Comment by BJK — July 27, 2009 @ 6:31 am
  4. I’m more apt to believe that the rise in college enrollment has far more to do with things such as the implementation of the GI Bill, depression and WWII era parents wanting better lives for their children, especially after living through such things as the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, pushing them to go to college, than I am to believe that people did it simply to get out of going to Nam.

    Comment by Vast — July 27, 2009 @ 7:37 am
  5. Vast, BJK, You miss my point:

    The question is, why is it so much harder to get a decent job if you don’t have a college degree?

    In the past thirty years, many jobs have remained essentially unchanged, yet now one must have a college degree before one can even be considered. This post is intended to discuss the reason why this phenomenon is occurring.

    Don,

    You are quite correct. I teach college freshmen at an old and prestigious private university, and have observed the phenomenon you described first-hand.

    Comment by tarran — July 27, 2009 @ 8:10 am
  6. One reason college degrees are popular requirements even if they don’t seem necessary when reading the job description – “weeding”. It’s so much easier for HR to pick a candidate if they can pick 2 or 3 relatively arbitrary but easily discerned items on a resume, like whether the applicant has a college degree, to whittle down a pile of applications. Either the pile on the desk is smaller at the outset because people without one didn’t apply, or it’s easy to whittle down because you can quickly sort the pile into “yes” or “no” on the degree question. At it’s base, it’s an easy screening tool.

    Go into the middle or high school level education, and you find the same thing happen many times with “coach” and “not coach”, especially in common subject areas like the social sciences and English. Again, a quick way to whittle down a stack of resumes.

    Comment by SC — July 27, 2009 @ 9:21 am
  7. College isn’t a trade school, where you go to learn a bunch of specific skills to do a specific job. College teaches you how to be a critical thinker, how to formulate and express ideas, how to challenge conventional wisdom.

    Does this happen with every student at every college? Of course not. But I spent tens of thousands of dollars to send my kids to great colleges, and there’s no doubt in my mind it was worth every penny.

    Comment by bigyaz — July 27, 2009 @ 11:07 am
  8. The weeding out process SC mentions dovetails with tarran’s assertion that contemporary business practice seems to have moved in the direction of outsourcing job testing and education. Regardless of whether a university taught anything of actual value to the business, the applicant is assumed to have reaped some benefit from the experience.

    When I’ve hired for entry-level positions in the past, college education did indeed sometimes substitute for work experience. But I always preferred work experience where available. I agree with Don, I saw academic experience as an introduction to general concepts and possibly a demonstration of follow-through. The real value to me when I was hiring was when the applicant already had one or two positions in the field under his/her belt and knew how things were done in the inconvenient, messy world of irrational customers.

    As tfr points out, when the hiring party is not the manager of the team, they can often be so distant from the actual requirements that they simply match acronyms on the job spec to acronyms on the resume (academic or not).

    Frankly, for my field, I learned very little in college that had any contemporary relevance to my career’s demands.

    Comment by Akston — July 27, 2009 @ 12:36 pm
  9. I’ve been on this for quite some time. My father’s father quit school at 16 to fight in World War II. He came home, got his diploma, and went to work in the local manufacturing plant. He worked as a clerk (paper-pusher) for 35 or so years, raised 5 kids on one salary in a nice town in a large house, retired to Florida, and lived there 15 years until his death. To my knowledge he had not one credit of post-high school education.

    By contrast, his clerk job today would have a 4-word title and require at least 4 years of school, possibly 6. I know, because I push papers in a large bureaucratic organization, have a 3-word job title, and have 7 years of expensive, entirely useless post-high school education. I’m not throwing myself a pity party, just pointing out the utter absurdity of it. A bright high school graduate could be paid 40% of my salary and do just as good a job, perhaps with a few more weeks of training than I needed.

    Don,

    If the Flynn Effect is more or less right, then high schools were producing even more unqualified people 50 years ago than today, just due to baseline intelligence. Yet, my grandfather was a clerk for decades.

    Comment by Joshua Holmes — July 27, 2009 @ 4:05 pm
  10. Unfortunately, I would estimate (based on personal experience) that about 90% of today’s college graduates are far, far less educated (in terms of facts and skills), and completely lack the critical thinking ability that the average high school graduate of the mid 60′s and earlier possessed.

    Comment by PECB — July 28, 2009 @ 12:09 pm
  11. I think the quality of K-12 education has gone so far downhill in the past 50 years it is incredible, and for most OFFICE jobs, getting “remedial” catch-up education via college in order to make up for the wasted 13 years of crap, is almost mandatory.

    Illustration: I’ve been working with secretaries for 28 years. When I started out, all the older gals in the office (in their mid-50′s in the early 80′s –the WWII generation) …who had HIGH SCHOOL degrees only, could still recite a few lines of poetry (written by Dead European White males) they had been forced to memorize back in h.s., they could take SHORTHAND (something I’m sure none of you have never even heard of) they learned in their elective “business” classes they took in h.s., and the grammar rules they could still recite and understood and knew how to apply, they learned in H.S. They were literate, well mannered, and well spoken. They never said “ain’t,” they didn’t never use no double negatives, etc., etc. True office professionals…..without having a single college credit to their name.

    Fast forward. Today, if I’m accepting resumes for a legal assistant (what a “secretary” is now called) – applicants with only a h.s. degree are invariably functional illiterates. Absolutely pathetic. Without a significant amount of post-high school education under their belts, they will not be able to distinguish when to use “it’s” versus “its” or “their” versus “there” (two examples) if you hold a gun to their head. Verbally? “Me and Trish are going to lunch now.” “Alls ya gotta do…” Etc. You get the picture.

    That’s your average NON-college bound high school graduate – who knows Word and Wordperfect and so would therefore like to be something more than an $8.50/hour supermarket cashier, and can’t understand why she can’t jump right in and be a legal assistant trainee since she’s like, you know, a quick learner ‘n all.

    Sorry – I’ll let the local state commuter U. do the work of polishing you up that your darn high school failed and refused to do.

    One more reason why – at least in areas requiring communication skills – either written or verbal – the applicant with at least some college coursework, is going to have a better shot at the job. It should not have to be that way – but that’s the reality.

    Comment by southernjames — July 28, 2009 @ 12:45 pm
  12. SJames,

    As I read it, the gist of your concern is a requirement for applicants who can do the work correctly. Given the looser, more adult, and financially driven nature of a normal college experience, can’t that same underachieving student cruise through college as well?

    My experience was that the ability of the young applicants was more tied to their personal intelligence, maturity, tenacity, attention to detail, and family culture than what level of education they had attained.

    Is this a schooling issue, or a personal development and ability issue?

    Comment by Akston — July 28, 2009 @ 3:21 pm
  13. “Given the looser, more adult, and financially driven nature of a normal college experience, can’t that same underachieving student cruise through college as well.”

    Sure. Of course. Lots of kids get a two year or a four year degree and still can’t string together a series of sentences in proper English. A lot of what is taught (or not taught) at Univerities is total crap too. Heck, look at the “scary smart – he’s giving me leg tingles” president we’ve got sitting in the White House. He spouts incredibly ignorant nonsense such as “Hirohito ‘coming down’ to surrender to MacArthur.” (this happened last week). Occidental, Columbia, Harvard!! Gosh how impressive! I guess an actual, and real, U.S. History course, as opposed to varieties of “Amerika as Imperialist Exploiter”, etc. just wasn’t on the curriculum at those fine institutions (sarcasm)).

    “Is this a schooling issue, or a personal development and ability issue.”

    Both. Lots of families overcome the shit on a shingle known as our “public” government school system by involving themselves in the process – in all sorts of varying ways – including participating in their kids’ homework with tutoring and studying together, proactive selection of h.s. “electives,” paying for outside help such as Sylvan Learning Centers – or abandoning the government system altogether either via the private school route or home schooling. I have personal experience in all of the above.

    Low income families – especially with a single working Mom – don’t have these sorts of options. And the Democrat/Teachers Union Machine has a iron lock on the status quo – e.g., opposing a ‘voucher’ system in order to give those families some autonomy and choice. So kids in inner cities or poor rural areas are stuck with the useless shit the government educrats dole out.

    So it is clearly also a schooling issue, as I thought my real life description illustrated. When those ladies (back then in their 50′s – now in their late 70′s) were in school, the quality, substance, course material, curricula, etc., were different.

    The standards for passing through grades as opposed to flunking, were different too.

    Here is yet another real life illustration. My grandfather (born in 1906) was a fun-loving goof-off as a teen. He chronically blew off ONE of his classes as a senior – he “skipped out” one too many times. Outcome? He had to repeat his ENTIRE senior year – all of the courses. And graduated with the next class, the following June.

    Those sorts of no-nonsense, rigid standards and expectations are just a faded memory now.

    Comment by southernjames — July 29, 2009 @ 4:16 am
  14. All kids are told “if you want to succeed in life, you must go to college”. Some kids have the intelligence an aptitude to succeed at a job right out of high school, but these kids all go to college. So what we have is underachieving high school graduates who can’t get a job, and college graduates. The next bunch of kids look around and see that only the kids going to college are getting jobs, so they all go to college too.

    Another aspect that has not been discussed is that since there are more college graduates around it is harder for the non-college people to get the same jobs. If two applicants have seemingly equal qualifications, the employer will choose the one with a college degree.

    Comment by Peter — July 29, 2009 @ 10:34 am

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