The bad news for recent college graduates keeps piling up:
Job prospects have deteriorated for recent college graduates. Besides facing high unemployment rates, young college graduates are now accepting more jobs that do not require college degrees. Not only do these stints of over-qualification affect the future earnings of these college graduates, they also make it more difficult for high school graduates to find employment as they face competition from higher-educated workers. Young workers certainly face an uphill battle as the economy continues to struggle. (my emphasis)
I assume that two-year degree holders and four-year college graduates from colleges and universities with lesser reputations are also finding increasing competition from recent college graduates from more prestigious schools, for the same reason, but I don’t know if that’s actually the case. A couple of possible mitigating factors: (1) many associate degree holders have obtained training and/or certification for specific mid-skill jobs that other college graduates may not be able to compete for, even if they wanted to; and (2) affluent graduates from elite schools are much less likely to be having trouble finding jobs.
Meanwhile, Brookings has published a report that examines the college return-on-investment issue, arguing that while on average, the benefits of a college degree outweigh the costs, the benefits may not outweigh the costs for everyone. I haven’t read the entire report, but I’ve never thought arguments based on the average ROI of a college investment made much sense. Also, if we’re going to look at the issue broadly, measuring the return in terms of raw wages is a less interesting to me than the extent to which postsecondary degrees are a significant factor in moving people at the lower end of the economic ladder up to higher rungs, and whether people tend to stay at those higher rungs over time—and, most importantly—whether the positive effects have been trending up or down.
David Atkins thinks that the whole college push is basically a diversion from dealing with what he believes is a “broken economic system that does not serve the public interest.”
A new study suggests that basic information—especially regarding costs—might substantially might encourage more high-achieving, low-income students to apply to top colleges.
In addition, according to the Times, coupons to waive application fees “had a particularly big effect.” I suspect those fee waivers are substantial barriers for many families, and I’d be interested in seeing a study that isolated the effect of waiving application fees alone.
A broader question is to what extent low-income young people in general—not just the highest achievers—are informed about the different kinds of postsecondary education options available to them. I recall a conversation a few years ago with a community college official who told me that for many of the students at his institution, not understanding how to apply for financial aid was as big an issue as the cost of college itself.
Note: Revised last paragraph about an hour after posting to make it a little clearer and easier to read.
UPDATE: I just noticed a piece published Friday by ProPublica on the increasing number of fees charged by many colleges and universities in addition to tuition, which I’m sure contributes to the challenge of figuring out the actual costs of attending.
That’s kind of how I feel after reading Jared Bernstein’s sensible take on the college earnings premium. It’s not that there isn’t one, but, as he puts it, “it doesn’t inoculate you against global wage arbitrage, accelerating labor-saving technology, and high unemployment.”
Bernstein shows that the college earnings premium has been flat for women over at least the past decade, and rising a lot more slowly for men than it was back in the 1980s. But this data includes people my age who started out in better paying jobs after earning their degree. I’d be interested to see the wage differential between those with just a high school degree and those under 30 with a college degree. Considering that average wages for college graduates have been falling steadily since even before the recession, I don’t understand why the wage differential for future generations won’t continue to narrow.
The other point is that not all college degrees are the same. A BA from Harvard presumably has more earnings potential than a BA from lower tier school. But unless I’m mistaken, the college premium argument is based on the average earnings of everyone currently in the workforce with a college degree, young and old.
It seems like we’re asking young people and adults without college degrees to work harder and invest more in education, but settle for less—maybe a lot less, in terms of earnings—than prior generations.
In the comments section to Bernsteins’s post, someone argues that “[E]lectricians, plumbers, carpenters, HVAC, exterminators, all blue collar work etc. is where the future lies… [T]hose trades carry little or no debt, have apprenticeships and pay well from the get-go. AND they carry job security.” It’s kind of old-fashioned now to talk about, but a lot of adult education programs can (and do) help adults move into those kinds of careers. The emphasis in adult education now is to ensure that adults become college and career ready, and I hope the career readiness piece looks at ways to help more adults move into apprenticeships for these kinds of jobs.
In a recent essay for Voices In Society, Anthony Carnevale, Director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, makes an offhand remark about student loan defaults that caught my attention:
Sure, college is expensive—stories of students racking up tens of thousands of dollars in student-loan debt are common. Federal student-loan default rates jumped from 7 percent in 2008 to 8.8 percent in 2009, so it’s clear that not everyone is handling that debt responsibly. (my emphasis)
Maybe some of those borrowers were irresponsible, but that 7 percent default rate jump occurred just after the worst recession in decades—one that was characterized by double digit unemployment in many states. I wonder how many borrowers during this period suddenly found themselves in a position, through no fault of their own, where it became impossible to continue to make their payments.
Something else was going on around this time, too:
“I hear a lot of talk that these are just rogue actors,” Mr. Harkin began one question to Gregory D. Kutz, who led the undercover investigation for the Government Accountability Office. “Would you say that misleading and deceptive practices are the exception, or are these more widespread?”
Mr. Kutz responded that while investigators found “good practices” at a handful of colleges, none of the 15 colleges it visited were “completely clean.” At each of them, recruiters and admissions officers made deceptive or otherwise questionable statements to investigators posing as applicants.