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Despite all of the arguments for attend college, earning a college degree is not without risks.  Not every degree holds the same amount of salability on the job market.  Clearly a degree in engineering will have more utility than a Bachelors in Gender Studies. The opportunity cost of the time spent in college needs to be considered. The student actively forgoes opportunity for hands-on job training when they elect to attend college. Mirroring the costs of an unpaid apprenticeship detailed by the near forgotten French Economist Richard Cantillon (1680-1734) in his seminal work An Essay on Economic Theory.

If his father has him taught a trade, he loses his assistance during the time of his apprenticeship and is obligated to clothe him and to pay the expenses of his apprenticeship for many years. The son is thus dependent on his father and his labor brings in no advantage for several years. The [working] life of man is estimated at only 10 or 12 years, and as several are lost in learning a trade, most of which in England require seven years of apprenticeship, a plowman would never be willing to have a trade taught to his son if the artisans did not earn more than the plowmen……. The professionals themselves do not make all their children learn their own trade: there would be too many of them for the needs of a city or a state and many would not find enough work. However, the work is naturally better paid than that of plowmen. (p.41-42).

While the dynamics are not identical to a student attending college in the 21st century, however, there are some striking parallels. Both practices are assumed to function as an investment in a young person’s human capital. A trade off forgoing income for the present, with the anticipation that this will yield higher potential wages in the future. However, based upon Cantillon’s depiction of 18th century of apprenticeships parents were more entuned to the practical results of their child’s job training. Due to the large costs of losing help on the farm parents were more  likely to consider their child’s aptitudes and the present concentration of skilled labors on the job market. The current “college for all” initiatives have left out an important piece of information out the factual argument for promotion greater college attendance, not all college degrees are equal. On average graduates holding a degree relating to the medical or STEM fields stand to make more money than those who majored in the humanities. This fact is frequently omitted in the onslaught of appeals encouraging young people to attend college. Creating the false impression that an engineering degree is on equal footing with a degree in sociology.

The pragmatic concern of  parents during the 18th century of an over saturated job market has disappeared. Witlessly parents are now pushing their kids to go college not for the sake of obtaining skills, but for acquiring credentials. Meaning that a college degree has turned into a signaling mechanism for employers. It’s an easy metric for qualifying potential candidates and effectively avoiding the  the legal complexities of  employment contingent intelligence testing (Griggs v. Duke Power Company). To a certain extent this signaling model for attaining college diplomas has backfired. As the number of people procuring 4-year degrees increases, invariably like another commodity its value depreciates on the market. Embodying the very essence of the most well know law in economics, the Law of supply and Demand. As the quantity of a good increase its market value  (quantified in money) decreases. The current glut of college educated participants in the workforce is exemplified by the statistics that 41 percent of all recent graduates are underemployed. Recent graduates that are underemployed are five times more likely to remain underemployed five years after graduation. The overall employment rate of college graduates has decreased from 1989 to 2019. Retention rates for 4-year institutions reached an all-time high of 81 percent in 2017. In 1900 only 27,410 students earned a bachelor’s degree. This number ballooned 4.2 million by  1940. That number has increased to 99.5 million. Demonstrating the vast proliferation of Americans with college degrees since the turn if the 20th century.  Considering nearly 40 percent of all Americans have a four-year degree does it still hold the same value on the job market? Clearly not. This is evident when observing the statistics relating to underemployment.

The decreasing value of a 4-year degree has distorted the signaling function of  a bachelor’s degree. This precipitous decline in value is the result of credential debasement. The depreciation of college degrees has resulted from a two-pronged debasement of these ubiquitous form of credentialing.  The first form of debasement that is afflicting college credentials is an increase in the quantity of degrees. Which is analogous to the introduction of more money into the economy through fiscal and semi-fiscal qualitative easing. Based upon the Law of Supply and Demand the greater the quantity of a commodity, the lesser the value. This debasement is exacerbated by federal subsidies for higher ed, government scholarships, and government loans. These policies eliminate the financial barriers for entering college, the result being more students obtaining degrees.  On the surface, this sounds like a good thing. However, with an increase in the number of Americans holding degrees the “purchasing power” of a bachelor’s degree is greatly diminished. Leaving many graduates with no choice but to take jobs that do not require a degree.  Even most positions in an office environment working in sales or customer service do not require any college (or shouldn’t). This phenomena is particular jarring when you consider that 29 % of flight attendants, 17 % of hotel clerks, and 23.5 % of amusement park attendants hold 4-year degrees.

While the first form of debasement is a quantitative debasement of college credentials, the second variety is a qualitative depreciation.  Paralleling the currency debasement practices in ancient Rome. Gradually the silver content in Roman coins was replaced by higher concentrations of copper significantly reducing the real value of the coins, while nominal value remained the same.  The qualitative debasement of academic standards is a metric that is difficult to empirical prove.  However, many experts who believe that higher ed has been “dumbed down” utilize a lot of correlative measures to defend this assertion. Some theorists have cited a decline in SAT reading scores have being indicative of falling standards for college admissions. This talking point is far from the most damning piece of evidence supporting the claim of a dip in academic rigor. Students on average spending 400-900 hours a year on course work. In contrast, a fulltime work devotes 1,8000-2,000 hours annual to their job.  Despite the paucity of time dedicate to their studies students are currently earning higher grades than their parents or grandparent ever did. Back in 1940 the average GPA of a college student was 2.5, now it hovers around 3.1. While it would be unwise to infer causation from correlation, it wouldn’t be foolish to at least notice pattern.

Beyond the hordes of misguided parents and High School guidance counselors  urging students to go to College there is another force pushing them in this direction, public policy.  In recent years, many politicians various forms of “free college” or “student loan forgiveness” as part of their policy platform. Even some Republicans have incorporated moderate compromises to the “free college” proposals. For example, Arizona governor Doug Ducey signed (AZ SB1453) a bill that allows community colleges to offer bachelor’s programs. This measure may seem minor, it helps further debase 4-year degrees. Allowing community colleges to provide bachelor’s degrees acts as a subsidy, by artificially lowering the cost of a 4-year degree. There is a substantial difference in the cost of tuition between junior and senior colleges. Such initiatives encourage more prospective students to attend college, pushing the 4-year degree closer to being the new defacto high school diploma.

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