For the current generation of young job-seekers, the requirements on the playing field are changing radically. As The New York Times recently noted, more and more employers expect their employees to have a four year degree, even for entry-level positions. Does this mean we’re looking at an era where a college degree has become the new high school diploma, and what does that mean for the economy?
As is common in a pressured economy, the competition for available positions is fierce. It’s very much an employer’s market, even with a job rate that’s starting to recover from the darkest period of the recession. Companies looking for new staff know that they have huge numbers of applications to choose from when they’re in the market for new staff, and they can take their time to winnow through applications, applying high standards in the process.
Minimum education and experience requirements are an excellent way to quickly cut through a stack of hundreds of applications for a position, making the numbers more manageable. Historically, entry-level applicants needed to demonstrate that they had a high school diploma, which would indicate a level of educational attainment sufficient to handle a variety of tasks around the office. Today, the stakes are being upped: employers expect college degrees, claiming that graduates are more invested in their careers.
On the one hand, that makes it sound like employers are eager to support a more educated, engaged populace. But there’s a dark side to the situation, and that’s the growing student loan problem. Critics of the growing insistence on college degrees refer to it as “degree inflation,” pointing out that it’s pushing more and more students into school, and those students are getting deep into debt to acquire the degrees they now need for professional success.
Billions of dollars are currently at stake in student loans, with debt climbing to more than one trillion. As students flood colleges and universities in search of the basic requirements for work, they’re taking out more and more loans, especially since the costs of college attendance are rising. At the same time, wages are not pacing inflation. Some graduates are emerging with degrees clutched in one fist and a lifetime’s worth of debt in the other, well aware that the wages they’ll earn are unlikely to ever help them pay back their loans. The alternative, however, is unemployment.
This is a particularly acute problem for women, who commonly take on low-income entry level positions in offices to establish themselves in the job market. Suddenly, jobs for secretaries, file clerks and similar positions require college degrees, pushing young women out of the market for positions with some room for growth and development. Instead of being a secretary and working through the ranks, for example, a woman may be forced to work in food service, in a position that provides few opportunities for advancement and offers extremely low wages.
There’s nothing illegal about degree inflation, of course. Companies can and do determine their own individual requirements for job applicants to ensure a smooth, productive workplace. But as firms join the bandwagon, demanding college degrees from even their most basic of employees, it’s going to create even more pressure in the job market and strain on the college system. Many colleges are already growing even more selective in their admissions thanks to the flood of applicants, while public college and university systems are struggling to keep up with an influx of students.
Degree inflation could ultimately be part of the complex chain effect that’s threatening to drag down an entire generation of youth, and it’s a difficult subject to address because it’s impossible to regulate. While education is a great thing, people are graduating with decades worth of debt, and that’s not a good thing. Solving this problem requires making education more affordable and finding ways to address the unemployment rate to relieve the strain on the job market.
Photo credit: Nazareth College.