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Does College Pay Off, Even for Cashiers?

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Recently there has been something of a debate about the worth of the college degree. The lines have been demarcated by self-interest: academics and their friends in mainstream media have argued that a college degree is worth the money and the effort while others, especially those in the business world, like Peter Thiel, have claimed the opposite—Thiel called a degree “speculative and ill advised.”

Indeed, the business world does not place much of a premium on a degree alone—it is, in and of itself, a necessary but not sufficient factor in a hiring decision for the simple reason that there are too many college graduates out there—the greater the supply of applicants with a college degree, the lower the premium associated with the degree. For a degree to mean something again, it would have to become harder to get.

Because the business world does not regard a college education, in general, in high esteem, many—millions in fact—who graduate from college or university can end up working in jobs that do not require a degree, a particularly ironic turn for those who labored through college under the illusion that a degree would serve as entrée into the world of better paid jobs.

Because a college education has in general little value, investing enormous resources into it is indeed speculative because the investment can often end in enormous financial and personal failure that has life-long negative repercussions.

Nevertheless many claim that a college degree still pays off, even if a graduate ends up working the cash register. But is this assertion really true? Is a degree so valuable that it offers benefits in any employment situation? Does a person who spends years training his mind benefit by working retail? Or are such ideas nothing more than a hard sell of a special interest group desperate for more students and more federal dollars?

There is good reason to doubt the value of a college degree, especially in the light of data pointing to the fact that not merely a handful but, in fact, millions of college graduates are not able to use their degrees, having instead to work menial jobs. Richard Vedder at The Chronicle of Higher Education revealed last year the stunning statistics: “Over 317,000 waiters and waitresses have college degrees (over 8,000 of them have doctoral or professional degrees), along with over 80,000 bartenders, and over 18,000 parking lot attendants. All told, some 17 million Americans with college degrees are doing jobs that the BLS says require less than the skill levels associated with a bachelor’s degree. This is even true at the doctoral and professional level—there are 5,057 janitors in the U.S. with Ph.D.s, other doctorates, or professional degrees.” There is obviously a great excess of college graduates in America, so much so that millions are forced, due to absence of suitable employment, to take menial jobs, displacing those who have no degrees into joblessness. Because of this excess the degree has come to mean virtually nothing.

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.

More generally, how much a college graduate earns in general has always been at the core of the argument that one should go to college. Indeed, there are statistics that, at first glance, seem to back up the claim that college graduates earn more. And it is these numbers that have been used to sell the value of a college degree. But have the wages of those with college degrees really increased? The answer lies in looking more closely at how the Bureau of Labor Statistics collects data on wages and educational attainment—specifically, what it excludes. The BLS measures only those fully employed in its data on earnings and educational attainment. In other words, unless I am mistaken, the numbers exclude about 20 million college graduates who work menial jobs because most such jobs are part-time only. Indeed, when you click on the BLS sheets for part-time employees, you get a surprise—the BLS doesn’t measure their educational attainment.

Once we consider that the BLS numbers don’t report the earnings statistics for all college graduates, regardless of their status as full- or part-time workers, the argument that a college degree is a worthwhile investment becomes far less convincing, for if we were to include that 17 million living hand-to-mouth on menial job wages, the returns on a college degree would quite possibly fall dramatically. The bottom line is that the argument that college pays more is based on incomplete, distorted data.

Don’t hold your breath for any more detailed studies of earnings vs. educational attainment anytime soon. Count instead on studies that try to whip up a college degree deficit hysteria, such as the study out of Georgetown University suggesting that we need a whopping 20 million more graduates. But one could ask, what about the nearly 20 million working menial jobs because there are not jobs commensurate with their degrees available in the American economy?. Few will ask because those who end up joining the 17 million college graduates working menial jobs ultimately don’t matter in the larger scheme of things. No one cares what happens once you leave with your diploma—whether you end up mopping floors as a janitor—the higher education industry just wants to drum up new recruits who will bring in federal student loan dollars. And that is why you will see the ever-credulous mainstream press report about new studies that suggest that we, in fact, don’t have enough college graduates, that degrees offer magical benefits, even to cashiers at Target, and that over a lifetime you will still earn more if you have a degree.

In the final analysis it doesn’t actually matter if Leonhardt is right and some college graduates working menial jobs do get paid a little more, for no matter how much more you get paid to work the cash register or sweep floors, here is the hard reality of menial jobs and their debilitating effects on anyone with a college degree: You don’t improve your skills in these jobs, you don’t learn anything—you lose your edge. This stupefaction effect is something that Leonhardt conveniently ignores.

But menial job-induced stupefaction belies another notion widely propagated by the higher education industry—that an education lasts forever. It really doesn’t, not unless you do something to keep your intellectual edge. A person with a doctorate who ends up cleaning floors is not getting better as a scholar. He is wasting his vast intellectual potential, as are the millions of his educated compatriots in menial jobs. In fact, at most, a graduate probably retains his knowledge and intellectual ability for only a few years after graduation. Unless he uses his degree and his intellectual activity at work and reinforces his knowledge, he will soon forget what he has learned. A graduate who is forced to work a menial job will in a few years be reduced to the same intellectual level that he was at before he started college. Knowledge, creativity and intellectual prowess are fluid—to maintain them you have to have the kinds of jobs that challenge those faculties and reinforce them. And for this loss of one’s intellectual capability the slightly higher wages in menial jobs hardly compensate. Even if an education were to last a lifetime, however, this would be small comfort to someone working at a cash register in a company that does not promote based on educational achievement.

Ultimately Thiel was right in calling a college education speculative for the simple reason that most employers do not value a degree in and of itself. And the intellectual benefit obtained by getting a degree dissipates unless it is reinforced in a suitable job. Consequently, a college degree offers returns only for those who because of their other, special qualities are able to get work commensurate with their training immediately after graduation; only they will see returns on their investment. Anyone else will most likely incur a huge loss: not only will their forget what they’ve learned, they will be saddled for the rest of their lives with thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars in student loans which their hand-to-mouth menial job wages will never repay.

But even though it is a gamble that many will lose, college education is becoming a necessity because of the sheer numbers of those leaving academia with diplomas in hand. If more and more people go to college and graduate, even 20 million as the Georgetown Study suggests should be the case, you can be sure that 20 million jobs requiring a degree won’t magically appear to absorb that tidal wave of graduates. What you’ll see instead is a continuation of what is happening now, college graduates who can find no other suitable employment displacing those without degrees in menial jobs. And at some point it may even come to pass, if the trend continues, that to get a job standing behind the cash register you will need a college degree. But you can be sure that no one will benefit from such an outcome except the higher education industry.

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About A. Jurek

A. Jurek is one of the editors at Blogcritics. Contact me at:
  • Realist

    Since Einstein allegedly couldn’t balance his checkbook despite understanding astrophysical math, I have to vote in the negative.

    Besides – this debate about the value of college is only necessary to convert college from the path to a better existence for the masses to one of economic elite-only status and privilege.