Credential Inflation: Is College Worth It?


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As a society, we invest in many things. We invested in promising startups. We invest time in our community through charity. We even invest in ourselves. Which explains the plethora of fad diets and gym members we have to choose from in America. Americans also invest in human capital. Mainly through acquiring college degrees. Does a bachelor’s degree look impressive when nearly half of all Millennials have one? [1].


Investing in a college degree is certainly a costly endeavor. The typical college student who graduated in 2017 owed on average $28,650 in loans [2]. The assumption being that the student is going into debt to purchase a degree that will be the golden ticket to a good salary. Unfortunately, this is a somewhat faulty assumption. The significant numbers of college graduates are underemployed [3]. In 2008, it was estimated that 17 million college graduates employed in jobs that did not require a college degree (Vedder, 2012, P. 8) [4]. Notably, examples of underemployment being 29 % of flight attendants, 17 % of hotel clerks, and 23.5 % of amusement park attendants hold 4-year degrees (Vedder, 2012, P. 8) [5]. There is nothing wrong with any of the listed occupations. Is it wise to go into debt to take a job that requires no more than a high school diploma?


Underemployment is a key fixture of what has been credential inflation. Similar to monetary inflation is the depreciation of requisite education for a specific job. In a fiat system of currency when we print more money the purchasing power of our currency decreases. Likewise, flooding the job market with applicants possessing  4-year degrees diminishes the “purchasing power” of this previously advantageous form of human capital. The law of diminishing returns applies to education and the underemployment of college graduates being symptomatic of over-investment (Vedder, 2016, P.3) [6]. That’s why expanding college education universally will only compound the issue. The prevalence of college degrees has deduced this level of educational attainment to a bare-bones requirement. Putting into question the value of investing in a bachelor’s degree.


To really illustrate the dramatic increase in college obtainment it is important note when World War II started less than 5 % of adults had a degree (Bankston, 2011, P.3) [7]. Truly making a college degree a prestigious achievement. Part of what has driven the dramatic influx in college attendance has been government subsidies. For example, the Pell Grant established in 1972 to provide funding for low income students to attend college. Which ended up providing assistance to 5,428,000 students in the 2007-2008 academic year (Bankston, 2011, P.11) [8]. Outside of grants loans and other forms of financial aide have also contributed to the sizable increase in college attendance. It should also be noted that societal pressure also come into play. Your parents, teachers, society, and even politicians urging you to go to college.


Some would argue that there is  a two-sided debasement of the college degree. Not only is there any increased quantity, but a decrease in the quality. Some experts believe that the college curriculum has been “dumbed down” (Bankston, 2011, P.20) [9]. Which I personally find to be difficult to empirically determine. We are making a qualitative statement that can be swayed by perception. Standardize testing results perhaps? SAT scores for math have improved since 1966-67 school year, however, reading scores have been on the decline (Bankston, 2011, P.20) [10]. Is college admissions testing specific enough of a criterion to assess curriculum quality? I believe that is an open question. It is fair to question the conviction of current college students. The typical college student spends 900-400 hours a year on school related activities (studying, class attendance, etc.). In contrast the average full-time employee spends 1,800 to 2,000 hours annually (Vedder, 2012, P. 5)[11]. This may not necessarily measure the same variable. However, it does put into question strongly encouraging young people to attend college. If their priorities are video games, beer-pong, and dating then maybe it might not be the strongest option.


It is it really wise to be pushing recent High School graduates towards college? Considering odds are even with a college degree they will be underemployed. While away at college will spend more time hitting the beer-pong table than the library. Not too mention the cost. There was a 32.4% increase in the cost of college from 2001-2011 (Lemke & Shughart II, 2016, P.1) [12].The costs are only going to continue to rise. I would suggest that perspective students judicially choose their majors for what will have the biggest return in the job market.  Otherwise your decision will be a prime example of malinvestment. You will end up with massive student loans making 13.00/hr at a call center. However, computer science, applied mathematics, healthcare, and engineering  (P. 12) are “safer” bets than a philosophy degree.


Fortunately companies such as Google are not weight college degrees as heavily in the process of job candidate selection. Which is a shrewd move considering the number of programming certificates that exist. In all honest maybe more beneficial than a degree.  Even some grants now are predicated on the contingency that the recipient does not attend college. Example being the Thiel Fellowship. Shifting away from the college degree signaling model discussed by economists such as Bryan Caplan [13].


I have been personally impacted by credential inflation and have been lucky enough to rebound from underemployment. I was urged by my mother to attend college. I wasn’t too keen on it , so I decided to get my core requirements satisfied at a Community College. Due to my academic achievement at Community College I received a break on my tuition when I transferred to a 4-year institution. Luckily, I got my partying days out of the way in High School. Graduated Summa Cum Laude from University and was then in the massive expanse known as the job market. Armed with a mere Bachelor’s of Science in Psychology, needless to say I didn’t fare too well. Ended up working as a janitor at a casino. Thankfully, due to my strategic planning I graduated with virtually no debt. Then ended up working several office jobs. Typically, corporate offices prefer candidates with college degrees. Which is gratuitous because there is nothing about the job that makes inherently necessary to hold a college degree.