Those who are unable to afford college have always been at a disadvantage when it comes to their career prospects and, by extension, their earning potential. “A recent study from Georgetown University found that, on average, college graduates earn $1 million more in earnings over their lifetime,” reports Cornerstone.edu. “Another recent study by the Pew Research Center found that the median yearly income gap between high school and college graduates is around $17,500.”
While there are still some white-collar jobs that don’t require it, a bachelor’s degree is increasingly showing up as a requirement for jobs that in the past only expected a high school diploma. This is an issue for obvious reasons, foremost among them the fact that it restricts an entire class of people who are unable to afford college from getting a decent job, and therefore, making a living wage. So how did we get here?
Really quickly, can you give me a refresher on what a bachelor’s degree means these days?
Sure, guy. According to GetEducated.com, a bachelor’s degree, also known as a four-year degree (because it usually takes four years of full-time study to complete, duh), “consists of general education or liberal arts courses in areas such as English, critical thinking, psychology, history and mathematics,” per their website. “In these four years, you will complete 120 semester credits or around 40 college courses. If your college uses a quarter system rather than a semester system, you’ll need to complete a minimum of 180 quarter credits to earn an accredited bachelor’s degree.”
In other words, a bachelor’s degree is sort of the industry-standard college diploma.
So I can’t get a job at a corporate office without one of these pieces of paper?
For certain office jobs, like for example, an accountant, a four-year degree is a prerequisite for taking the Certified Management Accountant (CMA) examination, which is the only way to get your CPA certification. There are, however, still office jobs that only require a high-school diploma — according to The Balance Careers, the best office job that doesn’t require a college degree is that of an administrative assistant, which admittedly, doesn’t sound terribly aspirational. “Administrative assistants provide administrative support that includes conducting research, preparing reports and handling information requests,” per their report. Other office jobs that don’t require a college degree include computer support specialist, paralegal or legal assistant and even web developer.
Some of them sound alright — are you saying I don’t need a college degree to get those jobs?
Not exactly. A 2017 Washington Post article says that companies are increasingly only hiring people with bachelor’s degrees to serve in jobs that used to only require a high school diploma. “Economists refer to this phenomenon as ‘degree inflation,’ and it’s spreading across all kinds of industries and jobs,” the paper reports. “Among the positions never requiring a college degree in the past that are quickly adding that to the list of desired requirements: dental hygienists, photographers, claims adjusters, freight agents and chemical equipment operators.”
The article cites a report from Harvard Business School, Accenture and Grads of Life, which found that “6 million jobs are at risk of degree inflation because employers are increasingly asking for a college diploma as a proxy for skills and competencies. An example given in the study is for production supervisor, with nearly 70 percent of job postings now asking for a college degree, while only 16 percent of employed production supervisors have one.”
Why is this happening?
Bryan Caplan, an economics professor at George Mason University, told PRI earlier this year that it’s best to think of a bachelor’s degree as a sort of career passport. “Really most of what education is, is a passport to the world of real training,” he said. “So you go and spend all these years studying stuff that you don’t need to know. And that lets you go get a job that’ll teach you how to do the job.”
Echoing Caplan is a 2017 article in The Atlantic, which notes that the reason companies are hiring people with four-year college degrees to do middle-skill positions — those that used to be defined as only requiring a high-school diploma, such as bookkeeping or being a secretary — is because, “they see such degrees as an indication of whether an applicant has a range of skills they’re looking for, like the ability to communicate effectively or program computers.”
I still don’t get it. Why does a company require a college degree for the person in charge of answering the phone? It wasn’t always like this, right?
You’re absolutely right! Initially, it was assumed that, due to the Great Recession, “unemployed college graduates were willing to take jobs for which they were clearly overqualified,” reports Forbes. “Baristas with bachelor’s degrees became the popular image, creating the impression that degree inflation was the result of excess supply, a weak job market and overly opportunistic human resource departments.”
But the report from the Harvard Business School found that this explanation wasn’t telling the whole story. Instead, according to Selingo — who interviewed business leaders and recruiters from all types and sizes of organizations to research his book, There Is Life After College — the actual reason is far more aggravating. “Employers increasingly ask for a college degree because they’re often too lazy to dig deeper to determine if applicants have the necessary skills and competencies to do the job, whether they have a degree or not,” Selingo reports in a different Washington Post article.
In other words, requiring a college degree became a more efficient way for employers to judge competence, even if it was ultimately inaccurate and detrimental to their own interests. “For one, hiring someone with a college degree for such jobs increases the salary by as much as 30 percent and the positions take longer to fill,” writes Selingo. “Once hired, college graduates have higher turnover rates and lower levels of engagement in jobs that never before required a college degree.”
But there has to be a way for people without a college degree to get a decent job, correct?
Not if the new applicant tracking systems that search for specific keywords have anything to say about it. Selingo notes in his article that these tracking softwares include “college diploma” as keywords that need to appear in a job seeker’s materials, and therefore, “automatically discard those missing the necessary requirements, all without the intervention of a person.”
Basically, unless you’re really, really passionate about something and you’re willing to fight tooth-and-nail for the increasingly unlikely opportunity to get that sweet white-collar job you’ve seen on TV, you’ll need to mortgage your life away for a college education. There, you will learn how to become a binge-drinking, sleep-deprived zombie, fueled by Adderall and laxative-infused dining hall cuisine and who, just maybe, might learn a thing or two about numbers and letters and such.
All of which is, of course, vital when preparing for a life of being some douchebag CEO’s administrative assistant.