American high school students have been pushed to head to college following graduation for many years now, and that push has resulted in an interesting but troubling fact: the majority of U.S. degree-holders work in jobs that require no college degree.
Most college grads are over-educated.
Analysis by The Economist of American census data finds that between 1970 and 2015 the share of workers aged 25-64 with at least a bachelor’s degree increased in 256 out of 265 occupations. Some of these are intellectually demanding jobs that changed a lot over that period, such as aerospace engineer or statistician. Others are non-graduate jobs such as waiting tables. Sixteen percent of waiters now have degrees—presumably, in most cases, because they could not find a graduate job. But other jobs that are mostly done by graduates, such as journalism, nursing and teaching in primary schools, used to require only shorter training, often received while working. Today, having a degree is usually an entry requirement.
If so many jobs now regularly require a degree, one might be tempted to think that most degree-holders are in such jobs. But one would be mistaken.
The Economist has produced a measure of over-education by defining a graduate job as one which was staffed mostly by degree-holders in 1970. We find that just 35% of graduates work in such occupations today, down from 51% 45 years ago. Judging by job titles alone, 26.5m workers in America—two-thirds of those with degrees—are doing work that was mostly done by non-graduates a half-century ago.
Hence, most college graduates are over-educated for the jobs they end up doing. The Economist also found that having more graduates in any given occupation does not necessarily translate to higher wages for that occupation:
We find only a weak link between higher shares of graduates in an occupation and higher salaries. For around half of the occupations that employ higher shares of graduates now than a half-century ago, real wages have fallen.
Andreas Schleicher, the head of education research at the OECD, sees the problem in terms of "skills shortages" as opposed to "degree shortages" - and that might very well be true. But as the Economist notes, until higher education adapts to changing times, a college degree likely remains the wisest way to go.
In the meantime the decision not to go to university remains risky, even though many graduates will end up doing work that used to be done by non-graduates—or struggle to find a job at all.