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Are bachelor’s degrees a victim of their own success?

I was recently asked by a reporter whether bachelor's degrees are "worthless".  I don't think they're worthless, but in many ways they have become a victim of their own success. 

In my view, employers are listing the requirement of a bachelor’s degree for even entry-level positions because it is symbolic of other things.  It means someone worked hard enough and made the effort to complete a degree, which is a proxy for being able to take on challenges and finish them. While for many jobs, a high school degree should be enough, the population that lacks a bachelor’s degree is proportionately likely to consist of more people who aren’t able, for whatever reason, to take on big challenges and finish them.  So, unfortunately for many people who despite no fault of their own don’t get a degree, it becomes a signal to the employer. 

By limiting openings to people with degrees, employers basically save themselves time weeding through potential candidates. 

The other thing that I would observe is that as more and more people have college degrees, the degree itself has become commoditized.  Having a bachelor’s used to be more rare, and candidates with the degree could therefore be more choosy and were more expensive to hire (in other words, expected to be paid more).  Today, that is no longer the case.  I think all this is one of the unintended consequences of the massive expansion of bachelors degrees.  From 2002-2012, the number of degrees awarded increased by 25%.  Interestingly, there has been even stronger growth in masters and PhD degrees during that period, all of which is indicative of a kind of degree arms-race.

It will be interesting to speculate on how these two forces will collide.  On the one hand, you have the increasing availability and quality of on-line, skill based programs which anybody can tap into.  On the other hand, you have all these institutionalized practices that embed degree programs into hiring decisions and the way we structure access to opportunity in our economy. 

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