Phi Beta Cons

A Few More Numbers

Via the Economix blog, I find this graph, produced by labor economist Andrew Sum: 

We all know it’s a tough economy right now, particularly on the young. That — a rise in raw unemployment among recent college grads over the past decade — is what the left half of this graph shows.

The right side is more interesting. It shows a much steeper decline in college grads holding jobs requiring college degrees — a raw percentage difference twice as big, and a relative change three times as large, bringing the current portion well under 50 percent. Obviously “requiring a college degree” is a somewhat subjective criterion, but Sum is using the same metrics across the decade, so there’s definitely some trend here. 

My natural bias is to see this as more evidence that higher education is a bubble — that our social fetish for the BA has only increased even as its real utility has declined – but the economy is so complex that it’s always risky to take policy prescriptions away from simple data trends like this. The above variance could, for example, just reflect a hiring contraction throughout the entire economy, in which college grads locked out of white-collar professions are competing for blue-collar jobs and gaining them at a higher rate than high-school grads, meaning that a BA still confers an important (though misleadingly advertised) advantage. There are dozens of other possible drivers and implications: That fewer college grads are pursuing marketable degrees, that today’s college grads are simply choosing different life paths, or that there are broader structural problems in the American economy, etc. 

But the inescapable takeaways are that (1) the “employment” situation for recent college grads is a lot worse than even the already-grim raw unemployment numbers convey, (2) this month’s graduates can look forward to a less-than-even chance of fitting employment, and (3) despite all the debt and cash we devote to producing BAs, the market can’t find use for even half of them.

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