credential inflation

James Poulos writes for Forbes about his long, circuitous journey through higher education, and his youthful quest to break into the social strata of the American elite.

Our higher-ed system is now the most garish illustration of how competition is corrupted by the dual love of money and equality. Meritocracy is impossible in theory or practice without social structures that set and enforce sportsmanlike rules of the game. Meritocracy requires not only competition but rational competition. And what our cultural critics of higher education are discovering is that academia — the most important place Americans go to get socialized the same way — has now become an absurd game, a framework for irrational competition.

Smart kids without the right cultural concierge service get aced out of elite admissions. Eager beavers work hard for JDs that turn out to be awful investments. High-achieving nerds who spend a lifetime at the top of their classes discover that even if you earn that PhD, even if you earn it from an elite school, you might still end up fighting for professional scraps — a non-tenure-track gig teaching third-tier students at a fourth-tier college in a cultural Siberia like Alabama or Arkansas…

I went into college as a very smart and very focused kid from a middle-class family with a low net worth. I completed college in three years, thanks to what was then a very generous AP-credit regime at Duke. College was my first exposure to really rich people, including really rich potential mates. But nobody was there to warn me about what kind of girls I might wind up dating unless I found a wife at my elite university. Nobody was even there to help me figure out how things worked in the elite society I had suddenly, if largely technically, gained access to…

The upshot of my strange and technically unsuccessful journey through elite education is that knowledge isn’t the ticket out of a limited social sphere that I once thought it was. But wisdom — or, to put it less pretentiously, learned life lessons — probably is…

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Alistair Heath writes for The Telegraph of London:

Britain is facing a jobs crisis made in Downing Street and signed off by the leaders of all political parties, starting with Sir John Major, during the past quarter century. The problem is not the number of new jobs – there are lots of those, confounding the skeptics, and could be even more if the labor market doesn’t become over-regulated. The issue is that an obscenely large number of young people with a university education will not be able to find a job that matches their expectations.

Research from the US government, which without doubt applies equally to Britain, suggests that just one out of the top nine occupations expected to create the most jobs this decade requires a university degree.

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The New York Times is running a story today on a problem that we all know exists. And it seems to be getting worse, not better.

The college degree is now the equivalent of a high school diploma–increasingly, it’s a basic requirement for jobs that actually do not require advanced education. And all of the debt and time that goes into obtaining a degree is a burden that even low-paid office workers must now bear.

Imagine racking up $30,000 in college debt so that you can get a $10 per hour job as an office courier. When will the madness end? Here’s an excerpt:

Consider the 45-person law firm of Busch, Slipakoff & Schuh here in Atlanta, a place that has seen tremendous growth in the college-educated population. Like other employers across the country, the firm hires only people with a bachelor’s degree, even for jobs that do not require college-level skills.

This prerequisite applies to everyone, including the receptionist, paralegals, administrative assistants and file clerks. Even the office “runner” — the in-house courier who, for $10 an hour, ferries documents back and forth between the courthouse and the office — went to a four-year school.

“College graduates are just more career-oriented,” said Adam Slipakoff, the firm’s managing partner. “Going to college means they are making a real commitment to their futures. They’re not just looking for a paycheck.”

Economists have referred to this phenomenon as “degree inflation,” and it has been steadily infiltrating America’s job market. Across industries and geographic areas, many other jobs that didn’t used to require a diploma — positions like dental hygienists, cargo agents, clerks and claims adjusters…

You have to ask yourself: Why?

Is this simply because Americans have bought into the idea that a college degree = financial security? If so, than the bachelor’s degree is less likely than ever to deliver on such a promise. Ironically, degree inflation has a kind of self-perpetuating effect on the labor market. Those without a B.A., as the NY Times, points out, are being pushed even further down the food chain.

Now high school graduates are being told that they are unqualified for jobs that they used to be able to get. So the pressure to get a B.A. is higher than ever. Yet, because everyone is getting one, the actual market value of a degree is diminishing relative to others in the market (who also almost all have B.A.’s). It’s a vicious cycle. The only winners are the high-paid college administrators and faculty who are making themselves, in many cases, quite wealthy off of the tuition dollars of young people who are destined for low-paying, entry level jobs.

It’s time for employers to wise up and offer talented workers an alternative path to meaningful careers. What if a few innovative companies, say in the technology sector, for instance, started hiring ultra talented students directly out high school with the promise of good pay and upwardly mobile career paths? That might shake things up.

Wouldn’t you know it–it’s already beginning to happen, as the San Antonio Express-News reported in this story last year:

“Information technology is so big and open and there are so many jobs, they are paying an 18-year-old good money to do this work,” said Ricky Banda, who graduated in May from Southwest High School and is already working full time in the field.

After Banda was part of a team that brought home a prize in the CyberPatriot national high school cybersecurity competition, the Air Force picked him up for a network security defense analyst internship his senior year. He made $12 to $13 an hour — with a government security clearance — at 17. Now with a high school diploma and multiple security and networking certifications, he’s making $43,000 a year interning with Northrop Grumman.

In a similar vein, billionaire Paypal founder and Facebook investor Peter Thiel has gained a lot of attention with his program to pay talented students $100,000 to drop out of college and found tech start-ups.

Mark my words–we’ll see much more of this kind of thing in the future.

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