College graduates are more likely to take less-skilled jobs in recent years than ever before, and a new study from the University of North Carolina says the expansion of higher education has made each bachelor’s degree seem less exceptional to employers.
Starting with the graduation classes of the 1950s, the percentage of young adults completing a four-year degree has increased dramatically, tripling or quadrupling the number of workers with bachelor’s degrees in some parts of the country.
“Higher-education expansion erodes the value of a college degree,” said study author Jonathan Horowitz, “and college-educated workers are at greater risk for underemployment in less intellectually demanding occupations.”
The increase in college graduation saturated the labor market over the past 50 years, and college graduates in younger generations increasingly found themselves taking jobs requiring fewer cognitive skills.
“If you were a college graduate in 1950, you were part of an elite club—only about six percent of young adults were college graduates. But college students today are graduating alongside approximately a third of their peers,” said Horowitz, a sociologist at the university’s Carolina Population Center.
Employers have far more college graduates to choose from, and the competition for skilled workers has heated up. Rather than guaranteeing a good job, a bachelor’s degree is now becoming the minimum qualification needed to apply for a job.
The research, which appears in the recent American Sociological Review, has important lessons for both employers and policymakers. While the number of skilled occupations has increased, it has not kept pace with the surge in college graduates earning their bachelors. With more college graduates taking jobs in low-skill service industries, US employers in various fields should take advantage of the skills in its workforce. Employers may be missing opportunities to hire educated, skilled workers.
The study also shows that the higher education system cannot solve inequality by itself. A college degree is valuable because some workers don’t have it, and sending more people to college only increases the number of young adults in low-skilled occupations.
“College remains the best way to improve your standing in life, but you can’t send everyone to college. At some point, you have to tackle inequality by improving low-skilled jobs.” Horowitz says.