Steve Patchin/Is America an over-educated society?

Have you heard about the student that has just finished their bachelor’s degree that is now waiting tables at your local restaurant because she can’t find a job in her field of study? How about the gentleman who just defended his dissertation to earn his Ph.D, currently driving Greyhound bus routes. These are examples of what some researchers argue are indicators of a lack of labor market demand for college graduates.

Their conclusion, we don’t need more college graduates because through this “credential inflation,” we already have a large enough pool of those successfully navigating our higher education system.

This argument is based on a growing trend that is created in a slack economy. As economic growth slows, companies lay off workers, many of which have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher. These educated but newly unemployed go to find work, many ending up at entrance level positions in their field of expertise or in many cases in unrelated fields.

These employees may be considered by many employers as “over-qualified,” a condition analysts would label “credential inflation.”

In this situation, college graduates are being hired to positions that normally would be filled by high school graduates.

So if we are producing so many ‘over-qualified’ job candidates, shouldn’t we begin limiting the number of students we graduate from college since the market can’t fully utilize their intellectual capacity at this time?

As a global society we have a finite amount of natural resources at our disposal. We can’t make more oil or natural gas.

Intellectual capacity is a resource we can produce. Studies found that those with a college degree are more likely to seek additional education through their lifetime and benefit from it, building their intellectual capacity by becoming life-long learners.

Studies by Psacharopoulus and Patrino’s concluded that an individual’s annual earnings will increase by 10 percent with each additional year of schooling achieved. A Brookings Institution study found that of students coming from families living in the bottom quartile of household income (poor), 41% of those earning a bachelor’s degree moved into the top two quartiles (middle/upper class) by age 40. Of those that did not achieve this degree, only 14 percent moved up in economic class.

Currently 39 percent of the adults in the U.S. age 35-64 holding associate’s degrees or higher, while baby boomers beginning to retire.

From 1975 to 2010 the percentage of 25-29 year olds who completed a bachelor’s or higher rose from 22 to 32 percent. At this rate, the workforce in 2020 will be less educated than that of 2000, a net loss of intellectual capital.

Companies are in search of intellectual capital to grow their businesses. When they can’t find it in the U.S., they begin ‘off-shoring’ or moving their facilities overseas where they can find 350,000 new engineering graduates annually in China (the U.S. produces only 135,000). The country with the most intelligent workforce gets the jobs!

Developing intelligence benefits both the individual and the society in which they live. Studies show that educated people find ways to employ themselves, “supply creates its own demand,” using that intelligence to enhance any job they obtain. Intellectual capacity is a resource of great value to our society and one we can never have too much of.

Steve Patchin is the director of the Center for Pre-College Outreach at Michigan Technological University