Why It’s a Problem for a College Degree to Be the Minimum

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.


K H.
K H.2 years ago

I Went To School for 17.5 Years and All I Got was this Lousy Student Loan Bill.

Robyn O.
Robyn O.2 years ago

Mary B: Spelling must be unimportant in your world, since you show some deficiencies in that field, which I guess you learned at "collage". It didn't help me, so I guess it's OK not to be proficient in written English. A lot of the men I've known in business and law over these many years were functional illiterates when it came to writing and I had to rewrite everything for them. But then I was missing an important piece of plumbing and that missing organ automatically made me more stupid than any man could be.

Robyn O.
Robyn O.2 years ago

45 years ago any bachelor's degrees were considered positive for employers, but then it was only males who qualified and the rest of the graduates were thought to be ineligible for any other busiiness positions except for typing or filing. Women, that is. There were very few business degrees and the men hired were considered "trainees" who could be trained in any business field with any college major. But of course no women could be "trainees", they were only given typing and filing tests to qualify for clerical positions -- with no chance for advancement, ever, once they had started at "entry level". That term doesn't apply when you have nowhere to go but sideways, trying to find new jobs that paid more. It's not the same now, but perhaps the lack of available of nonclerical careers in business is due to the fact that the "others" (women, that is) are competing for what used to be "men's jobs." What a shame we ladies couldn't get in on the ground floor that many years ago, and it hasn't gotten much better since then even now everyone is supposedly "better educated" and there is no discrimination.

Mary B.
Mary B.2 years ago

If going to collage is going to put you in debt for more than a few years, don't do it. All the usual stuff you've always heard about the advantages of a degree have been nullified by the cost.Instead, start putting the pressure on our government to allow we the people to 'do money' the way the government does it. [ print as needed to ensure an adequet supply in circulation ] Instead of insisting the government do money the way a household does it. Which is totally impossible. After all what is a home budget's equivelent of maintaining a military, keeping up infastructure, emergencey management and help, a social safety net, creating jobs, protecting wilderness, state parks, funding schools, research, space programs, ect, ect.
Information, and knowledge is not wisdom and experience. You can only do so much book learning. It's puting it to practice regularly that create the muscle memory that alows you to get really good at something.

JoLi Nevares
Lisa Nevares2 years ago

It is a relief to know that others see the pitfalls of having degrees required for entry level work. When I was growing up, pharmacy techs and medical claims examiners were trained on-the-job. Today, these position often require formal certifications. Everything is becoming so 'specialized'. Back in the day, anyone who was willing to learn could do almost anything! My grandfather, for instance - who only had an 8th grade education - became a First Mate boat captain on the Mississippi River, an accomplished Ironworker who formaned the building of several large buildings including baseball stadiums and airplane hangers for the Army Corp of Engineers during WWII. He and his family also ran a farm.
As I see it, requiring post high school education is only causing further separation between 'the haves' and 'the have nots'. They used to advertise to my generation (in 1983) that a 4-year degree would enable you to make one million dollars more in a lifetime than that of a H.S. graduate. Today, there are no such advertisements and any substantial figure of increased earnings is drastically diminished by the costs of student loan debts required just to get the position. Also, if someone is not 'college material' or 'book smart' than they've already been relegated to the status of the 'have nots' because they cannot complete the degree requirements. Degree requirement is a form of discrimination that minimizes one's value as an individually skilled/gifted person based on how they 'lo

Nils Anders Lunde
PlsNoMessage se2 years ago


GGma Sheila D.
GGmaSheila D.2 years ago

Great White, you lost me a bit in your comments. Some I can agree with, however there would be a one word change in a comment of yours I'd make -
"The Reults are to:
1st. Employ white"...not people, but "Men" should be there..."at higher rate." Women, even white, are lower than minorities.

Carol C.
C. L. Carter2 years ago

Some degrees are worthless and should be cleaned from the catalog of the colleges across the country. Shame on colleges for taking money from students and allowing them to think there's a chance for a real paying job. SHAME!!!

Lynnl C.
Lynn C.2 years ago


Liza Recto
Liza R.2 years ago

Many employers tend to confuse intelligence and education. There are a lot of people who are educated beyond their intelligence. Until the 80s, a high school education was as good, or maybe better than, a liberal arts AA today. I went to work right after high school, and by age 19, I was working for a major ad agency and had a secretary with a college degree. A degree can be a crutch for someone who doesn't have much else to offer.