Despite such grim statistics, some claim that a degree is so valuable that even college graduates who enter the low-wage work world still somehow benefit—there are even claims (largely unsubstantiated by impartial and objective studies) that they make more in those jobs than employees without degrees.
Consider David Leonhardt writing in The New York Times that “Even for Cashiers, College Pays Off.” Leonhardt makes an incredible assertion in his piece in regard to the earnings of college graduates working in menial jobs, writing: “Construction workers, police officers, plumbers, retail salespeople and secretaries, among others, make significantly more with a degree than without one. Why? Education helps people do higher-skilled work, get jobs with better-paying companies or open their own businesses.”
The assertion that having a college education helps one do a better, more skilled job as a cashier or a plumber or a secretary is not only incredible to the ears of anyone with a college degree or two and who has worked in any of those jobs, it reveals the degree of disconnect between the higher education industry with its apologists and the real world. In what reality could ending up in a menial job be a payoff for a college graduate?
The obvious question that suggests itself in response to Leonhardt's claim is, How does having a degree in English Literature or Economics, for example, help one do more skilled work as a secretary, a janitor, a cashier, or a plumber? It doesn’t follow that a person with higher intellectual capability will be better at any one menial job, because such jobs require little thinking. To argue that a person with a college degree will be able to do a better job in a menial job is like arguing that a general would bring more to the role of a private.
Leonhardt's claim that a hypothetical cashier or a janitor with a Ph.D. makes “significantly” more than a worker without such a degree is also deeply problematic. Indeed, no serious, objective research has been done to prove that the millions working in menial jobs get paid more because they have college degrees. (The Georgetown University study that Leonhard cites in support of the notion that even cashiers benefit by having a college degree can hardly be called serious or impartial because of a massive conflict of interest: unsurprisingly, the study concludes that we need 20 million more college graduates.)
Regardless of what the Georgetown University study shows, the reality is that very few, if any, cashiers with college degrees will be paid wages higher than those who have no degrees from a simple business standpoint—a degree in literature or business adds nothing to the cashier's job performance. In fact, businesses are reluctant to hire overqualified workers for menial jobs knowing full well that such employees may be unchallenged by the job, unhappy, and unmotivated. A company such as Target does not even have a career path that allows promotion from an hourly position as a cashier to management, if you have a college degree. Target has a special program for recent graduates where you move directly into management training. But what if you graduated, say, a decade ago? Apparently, your degree means nothing.