Receptionist? Yeah, You Need a BA for That

by Emily Guy Birken · 10 comments

College diploma

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.

Apparently, they were just ahead of their time.

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? 

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • Tim Dibble says:

    The problem isn’t as much degree inflation as it is a failure of high school to produce employable people.

    • Starbuck Avon says:

      I realize this is several years later; however, I didn’t go to a 4-year college and have nearly 25 years experience as an administrative assistant/legal secretary but can’t get an interview because I don’t have a degree. Degree inflation is *still* happening in 2019. So is age discrimination, but that’s another article.

  • Property Marbella says:

    If you can get skilled employees to your business, they can help you and your business to improve and grow, and then maybe they would not stop.

  • Canadianbudgetbinder says:

    If I used my University degree to apply for an entry level clerical job that required a degree I’d almost be insulted that they would think I need a degree to do that job after all the money and years I put into my education. It’s no different in the UK with the saturation of grads with no jobs.

    We were all told a Uni degree was the way to go, what a laugh that was. It’s no different in Canada. How many friends we know that went to teachers college and STILL are not teaching and probably never will because they were told it was the “golden ticket” of a job.

    The same goes with many other careers and now you even need a degree to get a designation in some college courses. With the saturation, employers up the requirements for their jobs because now they get more bang for their bug hiring grad students with brains while paying them less because they think they can get away with it. I’ve met some brilliant people who never went to University and have no degree yet are very successful.

    Those that suffer are the high school students looking for work because they have little to no experience and no degree. So much for saving up to go to school if you can’t even get a job. Just look at online job boards in the summer and they are saturated with students begging for work. They will do just about anything to pack away cash so they can pay for school so they don’t come out with a tonne of debt.

    I had to go back to school when I moved to Canada and I had a degree and couldn’t find a job in my field. Can you believe I was called for an interview and she said she was happy with my degree bla bla. I left for the interview which too me over an hour commute time.

    I did my research, dressed good, all that goes with the interview only to be told when I show up, “Oh, you have No Canadian experience?” from HR… and ya you need a degree for that designation now too. I thought, what you couldn’t read that on my resume that I was from the UK? You made me come here for nothing? Very bitter beginning to my job search here.

    I was able to get a job through an agency with my degree for $10 an hour.. heck when I said no they kept calling me and offering me a better position. I thought if you require me to have a degree to sort papers and count you are off your rocker. I went back to school right away and now have a career where my skills and abilities are being used for what I was trained. I was one of the lucky ones hired before I graduated but I took a chance.

    I really think some of these places need to get back to reality. Uni Grads don’t WANT to work in reception they just apply to pay the bills but certainly don’t want to feel they needed to spend $5ok to do it.

    It’s no wonder some are skipping University now and going straight to College as the odds are much better with less debt load when they are done and in finding a job. They just glorify alot of these jobs by tacking on the “degree requirement”. If students are managing to get through the high school system and graduate not being able to read and write we have a bigger problem on our hands. Great post

  • Kate says:

    The real bottom line in my experience is that a substantial number of high school graduates cannot read or write the English language in coherent paragraphs or even sentences, they cannot add and subtract, figure percentages even with a calculator, or write legibly in order to keep an appointment book or take messages. The other really unfortunate fact is that high school graduates have only a vague idea of their position in time and space. Someone who wants a job at a book store would ordinarily be someone who could both read and write. These days I’d never ask a high school graduate for a recommendation of something to read; if they’d ever read anything but Hello Magazine or maybe the Twilight Saga, that would surprise me. Plus they can’t work without someone micromanaging them, and their heads will probably be buried in their Devices instead of in their work.

  • @pfinMario says:

    The same is happening to Masters degrees. I’d say it’s all a byproduct of a weak jobs market… when recovery comes, it’ll get better.

  • Emily Guy Birken says:

    @Christian, I absolutely agree about the importance of vocational hires. I worked as a high school English teacher for several years, and quite a few of my students simply would not have done well in a college environment. But since college is the “secret to success,” they were pushed to take that path.

    These were, for the most part, hardworking and dedicated students who could have made great careers for themselves through vocational programs, but since vocational training is going the way of the dodo, they felt like they had to go to college. I would also love to see a return to vocational and apprenticeship programs, since the jobs that they prepare you for will always be needed and not everyone is cut out to spend four more years in a traditional classroom.

  • Christian L. says:

    I thought about degree saturation last night. Several generations are now sleeping in the beds they’ve made. People who couldn’t afford to go to college decided to take on massive debt to do so when they should have found an alternative. I sound cruel here, but is this that much different than the housing bubble? Instead of giving consumers a mortgage they can’t afford, they’re given an expensive degree they’ll pay off their entire life.

    Then everybody saw a degree as a path to some vague concept of “success.” Yet getting a college degree still puts you among a minority (something like 25 percent of the country has graduated college).

    Something has to give. Employers aren’t helping when they want prospective workers to have a college degree AND experience for an entry-level job. Frankly, I’d like to see a shift and increase in vocational hires.

    -Christian L. @ Smart Military Money

  • Russell Matthews says:

    BA or not, the reality is that most of the positions are now becoming automated. Dentists and schools may still have a receptionist but many small, medium, and even large businesses are switching to automated services. Why? They are more affordable and they are there 24/7. Taking messages, transferring calls, etc. Another position that is soon to be non-existant.

  • Alex C says:

    Degree inflation has become a sad thing. When my parents went to college, it was a sure way to a better life. It meant you were going to have a better job.

    However, those times seem to be long gone and soon you will need a degree to flip burgers at McDonalds. This degree inflation hurts many people in High School just looking for a part-time job to make cash. It is going to cause people to be unable to get work experience in the field they want to do.

    It is sad that school seems to be costing more and more as time goes on, but continues to return less and less. I heard a story from my frineds of a man who applied to a hotel receptionist with an M.B.A. How crazy?

    A few years ago, this man would have been set for life. College does not seem to be returning the value that it use to.

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