Note, though, that the skills required of college grads are not always ones they are taught in college.
Which brings me to another, potentially more troubling explanation for degree inflation: signaling.
Regardless of what you actually learn in college, graduating from a
four-year institution may broadcast that you have discipline, drive and
stick-to-it-iveness. In plenty of jobs -- such as I.T. help-desk
positions -- there is little to no difference in skill requirements
between job ads requiring a degree and those that do not, Burning Glass
found. But employers still prefer college graduates.
college attendance more routine today it was than in the past, degrees
are becoming a common, if blunt, tool for screening job applicants. In 2013,
33.6 percent of 25- to 29-year-olds had a BA, vs. 24.7 percent in 1995.
Bachelor's degrees are probably seen less as a gold star for those who
have them than as a red flag for those who don't. If you couldn't be
bothered to get a degree in this day and age, you must be lazy,
unreliable or dumb.
Or so employers -- especially their HR departments -- seem to suspect.
Great stuff. But it immediately reminded me of your earlier, "College is Not a Losing Investment." On the surface, your two pieces are complementary: If employers strongly prefer applicants with college degrees, college pays. But "College Is Not a Losing Investment" makes other claims that your new-found interest in signaling should make you reconsider.
First, you seem quite convinced that college (perhaps excluding the communications major) teaches valuable job skills:
One of the silver linings of the financial crisis might be that the
lousy job market drove many people into, or back into, college to
upgrade their skills. They are reemerging more skilled and better
equipped to help expand a 21st-century economy, once it fully heals --
just as the surge in college-going enabled by the GI Bill helped grease
the economy during the postwar boom.
Second, you enthusiastically support continued (expanded?) subsidies for higher education:
I'm very skeptical of these positive spillovers; at the international level, where these effects should be plain as day, the evidence cuts the other way. But even if you're right, signaling is an offsetting effect. Consistent with the standard signaling model, your piece highlights a big negative spillover of education: The more education you get, the more other people need to avoid looking "lazy, unreliable, or dumb." Without massive subsidies for higher education, could the college degree ever have become the new high school diploma?
Like Harvey Milk, I'm here to recruit you. If you have doubts about the prevalence of educational signaling, I'd love to hear them. I should warn you, however, that signaling is a gateway drug. The idea sounds harmless at first. But once you take signaling seriously, politically popular education policies - left and right - start to sound naive, if not desperate. The white elephant in the room is that there is far too much education already.