Here's a new data nugget in a high-stakes debate over the state of working America: A new study finds that about half of all workers with a college degree are overqualified for their current jobs.
Some 48 percent of the degree holders, to be precise, are in positions that the US Labor Department classifies as requiring less than a four-year college education.
This finding, released by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, a research group in Washington, underscores growing public concerns about the availability of good jobs and the value of college education.
"In the three occupations 'retail sales person,' 'cashier,' and 'waiters and waitresses' there are more than 1.7 million college graduates employed," says the study, by researchers Richard Vedder, Christopher Denhart, and Jonathan Robe.
Today, 15 percent of US taxi drivers have a college degree, up from fewer than 1 percent in 1970.
The study arrives at a time when news articles asking, "Is college worth it?" have become commonplace.
But, although the new report suggests the answer often is "no," this is a complicated issue, with other scholars defending the idea that expanding higher education will benefit individuals and the economy.
For instance, for people focused on their own financial well-being, it's worth noting that a college degree tends to result in both higher pay and lower unemployment. The jobless rate is currently 3.9 percent for workers with a college degree or higher, versus 8 percent for high-school grads and 11.7 percent for people without a high school diploma.
Plenty of economists defend the goal of bringing higher education to a larger share of the work force, arguing that it's the best way for the US to maintain prosperity in an era of stronger global competition for good-paying jobs.
Both sides in this debate may be contributing important grains of truth.
Lots of people are overqualified for the jobs they hold, and this is a challenge that emerged before the deep recession in 2007-09, which created a particularly challenging job market for new college grads.
At the same time, the story of economic progress is one of continuous development of new tools and the skills to use them – and good jobs will flow to nations that can keep pushing further down this path. And millions of individuals have the means to educate themselves, and hope to be useful in jobs that match their talents and aspirations.
The Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP), in its report, emphasizes the risks of pushing too much education on too many people, with too little thought about its usefulness.
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Some of the findings:
If prosperity depends on education, it will also depend on creating jobs to make use of it. Citing forecasts from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the CCAP study says the US will add about 19 million college-degree holders during the decade that ends in 2020, while the number of jobs requiring a bachelor's degree is expected to growth by only about 7 million.
The "overqualified worker" is much more prevalent today than in 1970. The share of retail clerks who had college degrees back than was less than 5 percent, and has risen grown more than four-fold since then.
The economic value of college varies a lot by major. The average mid-career salary for an electrical-engineering grad is currently about twice that of a person holding a degree in music.
Mr. Vedder, the director of CCAP, says that many young Americans are spending money – and going into debt – not so much for skills as for an edge in getting hired. An employer may not require a degree-holder for a given job, but can use a degree as a "screening device" to narrow the pool of job applicants.
Critics of Mr. Vedder's view say that many employers, even if they don't officially require college degree holders, reap higher productivity by hiring them.
They also say the wage patterns of recent decades show that the economy is demanding more education, not less. A 2011 report by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce noted that some economists as far back as the 1970s were worrying about the "overeducated American."
"It turned out that the critics' predictions were startlingly shortsighted," said Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose in the 2011 report. "Instead of declining, earnings for college-educated workers grew rapidly throughout the 1980s and 1990s, outpacing growth in earnings of their less-educated counterparts. The gap between these relative wages widened significantly."
They argue that technology is a driver of this trend, "as unskilled labor is increasingly automated and employers look for workers who can productively utilize the latest technological products."
Add up the evidence on both sides, and it may suggest a few things. Higher education makes sense for many; but for many others, the best path beyond high school will be less-expensive vocational learning. Changing technology will expand the need for learning new skills throughout one's career, not just before age 22. Universities may come under greater pressure to hold their costs down or to justify high tuition rates.
A sign of the times: Moody's Investors Service recently downgraded its outlook for the higher education sector, given the threat of declining enrollment, government funding cuts, and customer doubts over the tuition's value.