When my sister was home from college one summer, she applied for a job at a chain bookstore that has since gone out of business. Though they called and asked her for an interview, they told her they were really looking for someone with a degree.
At the time, she chalked it up to the possibility that they wanted a permanent employee, rather than just a summer hire, but it still seemed odd that a retail establishment would care about the education level of its non-managerial employees.
Fast-forward 15 years, and many prospective employees are finding that a bachelor’s degree is now the minimum bar for entry to any number of low-level jobs.
Though these positions were previously open to anyone with a high school diploma or associate’s degree, they’re now requiring a four-year degree. While it doesn’t appear to have completely permeated the ranks of retail yet, it does include positions such as dental hygienist, receptionist, paralegal, file clerk, and even office courier.
The reasons behind degree inflation are fairly simple. After the recession, recent grads and the unemployed started applying for jobs that they previously would’ve considered themselves overqualified for. With an enormous influx of resumes coming for every low-level position, employers used education to pare down the list. If educated job seekers are willing to do the job, why not let them?
Finally, as The New York Times reported in February, the degree inflation itself starts to change employers’ views of job seekers without a degree. One employer interviewed in the article put it this way: “’College graduates are just more career-oriented. Going to college means they’re making a real commitment to their futures. They’re not just looking for a paycheck.’”
Unfortunately, degree inflation has some fairly devastating consequences on those without degrees. The unemployment rate among those with only a high-school education is 8.1 percent; for those with a bachelor’s degree, it’s 3.7 percent.
There are further potential consequences for the standard of degree inflation. Once the economy recovers and those with higher educations are able to find work within their fields, they’ll theoretically drop their low-level (and low-paying) positions like hot potatoes — despite (or rather, because of) their employers’ view of them as being more career-oriented.
Of course, degree inflation is no walk in the park for the graduates who are taking these low-level jobs, either. With student loan debt at all time highs, stepping from college into a $10/hour clerk job is hardly ideal or sustainable. If they had other choices, they’d certainly make them.
For as long as the job market remains a seller’s market, it’s likely that we’ll continue to see degree inflation and overqualified individuals taking jobs simply to keep the wolf from the door. However, as the economy recovers, we can hope to see the job market stabilize, thereby returning to a place where the best candidate for a job is chosen by more than just whether or not they have a college degree.
What are your thoughts on degree inflation?