Phi Beta Cons

Rich Vedder on the Overproduction of Advanced Degrees

At the Chronicle’s Innovations blog, Rich Vedder discusses the overproduction of advanced degrees in the U.S. It isn’t just kids with generic bachelor’s degrees who are suffering from under-employment, but also many students who have completed their advanced academic or professional degrees. Increasing the supply of people with Ph.D.s clearly does not lead to increasing demand for them.

This inefficiency is not new. Why does it persist? Vedder pins the blame on subsidies for the pursuit of degrees (mostly public, but also some private money) along with the incentives in non-profit institutions to “produce highly trained individuals who do things that society does not find very valuable.” I think he’s right on both counts, but will suggest another contributing factor — the mystique that surrounds advanced degrees. Lots of Americans have been conditioned to believe that since college is the ticket to success, an advanced degree must be a first-class ticket. That’s no longer true, but people sometimes continue to act on a belief long after the evidence comes in strongly against it. Feedback loops are sometimes swift (think of the Edsel and “New Coke”), but sometimes they are slow, as with Ph.D.s and J.D.s. Perhaps the essence of the problem here is that the individuals who reap high rewards from such credentials attract the most attention, while those who flounder in the labor market with training that no one wants to pay for have been overlooked, at least until recently.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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