When a College Degree is the Minimum Requirement for a Minimal Job

Many people are attending college – or sending their kids – out of fear that as bad as job prospects are with a degree, they’re far worse without one. Various studies and surveys support that conclusion, and I think that you’re still better off having a degree than not, at least in the long run.

But a college degree is no longer a guarantee of any sort. Sure, we still hear stories of people landing cushy jobs right out of college, at least in certain highly desirable majors. But for many more, the degree seems to be more of a minimum requirement to land some sort of minimal job.

An article appearing in the The New York Times supports this outcome. In It Takes a B.A. to Find a Job as a File Clerk, it is reported that a college degree has become the equivalent of what a high school diploma used to be – and the minimum requirement for even entry level jobs. The article says that college degrees are now required for jobs as receptionists, administrative assistants, file clerks and cargo agents.

When a College Degree is the Minimum Requirement for a Minimal Job
When a College Degree is the Minimum Requirement for a Minimal Job

The article quotes experts who say that employers are requiring degrees for job classifications that traditionally needed no more than a high school diploma or GED. And the reason that they’re doing it? Because they can!

College graduates are no longer in short supply, a fact that could dim future prospects even further. This may require a very different way of approaching a college education going forward.

It’s a long way up from entry level

There is a fundamental problem in having a college degree that only lands you in an entry-level job. The original purpose of a college degree was to enable the holder to bypass the entry-level completely! It was a credential that allowed you to fast-forward your career by starting somewhere in the middle and working your way up from there.

This is more important than most people realize. If you start in an entry-level position – such as a receptionist or clerk – it can be a long, long climb just to get to the middle – that place where a college degree used to land you at the start.

If that is the case, it could take you several years after graduating before you’re even earning a living wage, let alone holding a career type position. You may even get typecast as a low-level employee – after all, promoting from within is another fast-disappearing feature of the 21st Century job market.

How long will it be before a B.A. isn’t enough?

This is the next logical question to ask, though it’s definitely one that makes us feel uncomfortable. Will getting a job eventually require a graduate degree? It’s no longer a ridiculous question.

The main reason why you need a B.A. just to get an entry level job is because there simply aren’t as many jobs as there used to be. Students and parents feel that the way to respond is by increasing qualifications. But there is a difference between a qualification – or credential – and a skill set. The latter is what employers are now seeking in job candidates, but they’re not always what graduates actually have.

Adding another degree to your resume probably won’t improve your chances of landing a good job. If a B.A. won’t do it now, it’s just a question of time before a graduate degree won’t work either. And in the meantime, a graduate degree also runs the risk of having you classified as over-qualified!

Is a $30,000 job worth a six figure education – and debt

None of this would be nearly as concerning if most of what it meant was that your career path would simply take a little bit longer. But students are now paying six figures for an education, and often graduating with a six-figure debt. If the best a graduate can do is a job paying around $30,000, it will take an incredibly long period of time to recover the investment in his or her education, not to mention the debt burden that will be carried conceivably into middle-age – if it can even be serviced on an entry level income.

The high cost of an increasingly marginal-return investment in education should no longer be entered blindly. Like every other investment we could conceivably make, we need to ask how much we are willing to invest in a college education.

The fact that this question was a “no-brainer” 20 or 30 years ago is completely irrelevant today. We are in an entirely new paradigm as far as a college education goes. We need to very seriously consider if the $100,000 to $200,000 (or more) that will be spent on a college education, might be better invested somewhere else.

Your major matters more than ever

The parallel issue comes up in the form of the chosen major. This is a decision that can no longer be taken lightly either. A major in a traditionally strong field, such as engineering, IT, and accounting, can still provide solid employment prospects. But at the opposite of the spectrum, a major in history, sociology, or English literature, is quite likely to land the graduate in the undesirable position of having a combination of a six-figure student loan debt and dim employment prospects.

Time to consider the alternatives

I realize that this idea is controversial, but given the cost of getting a college education, the record levels of debt that are being incurred to pay for it, and the increasingly dicey employment prospects, it’s probably past time for students and their parents to consider alternatives to getting a college education. More broadly, it’s even time to re-examine the cost effectiveness of a college education in a middle-class family.

Since a college education now routinely costs well into six figures, it is possible that the return on an investment of that size may be more generous outside the college norm.

Some possibilities include:

  • Attending a trade school or entering an apprenticeship program – plumbers, electricians, mechanics, and other trades are always in demand because things are always breaking.
  • Investing the money in a well-diversified investment portfolio.
  • Investing the money in income producing real estate.
  • Starting a business.
  • Building work experience in lieu of a degree.

There’s a bonus here too – most of the ideas above cost substantially less than a college education. For that reason, you’ll be able to combine two or three ideas, which would also improve the likelihood of success.

For example, the person who decides not to go to college could build work experience and use some of the money that would be spent for college to begin a well diversified investment portfolio. He or she may even decide to attend trade school on a part-time basis. This would create three potential opportunities, the combination of which might produce a brighter future than a college degree would – but at a fraction of the cost.

What are your thoughts about a young person going to college? Do you think that the cost – and the decline in employment opportunities – should cause us to rethink the whole idea?

( Photo by Jason Bache )

10 Responses to When a College Degree is the Minimum Requirement for a Minimal Job

  1. Great post Kevin! I have written several myself along the very same lines. I think college is still a good choice for many, but can be a very expensive time of “discovery” if the student does not have a grasp on what they want to do. I think it comes even more so down to making an informed decision and determining what options there are out there…like a trade school, starting at a community college, etc.

  2. Hi John – I wanted to address lower cost college options, like community colleges, but the post was already well over 1,000 words. (That will be a follow up post!) Personally, I think the idea of a middle class family sending their kid to get a six figure education as increasingly becoming a cruel hoax. You’re spending the equivalent of the purchase price for a modest home to get junior an education that no longer guarantees a well paying career. I think it’s long past the point where people need to consider alternatives. There are economic reasons why college isn’t providing the returns it once did, and we all need to accept it and change course.

  3. From my own experience, I’ve grown irritated with the fact that most jobs these days not only want you to have a degree, but they also want you to have prior experience, which permanently leaves out folks who are getting started. It doesn’t make any sense to attend school before gaining work experience. If I could do it over, I’d probably work and attend school at the same time – which I did – but I should have been more selective about where I worked. Since I majored in Finance (instead of Accounting), I should have worked as a teller somewhere while attending school to build up that experience needed to make it into the banking industry.

  4. Hi Lauren – You’re hitting on something that’s SO important! I’ve talked to college job counselors who have told me that the lack of ANY work experience is killing job prospects for a lot of graduates. Too much emphasis is being placed on the degree to land the job.

    When an employer considers a condidate for a job, they look at the whole package – education, relevancy of the major, personality, and even limited work history. No employer wants to train a new grad in “how to work” – you’re expected to have that coming in the door.

    But some relevant job experience – as you’ve pointed out, a finance major with bank teller experience – could open up a lot of doors.

    When I went to college, most students had jobs. Today, it seems almost a novelty to find someone who does.

  5. “Is a $30,000 job worth a six figure education – and debt?” That’s a great question to ask Kevin…one that we have already begun to discuss in our household with our 12 year old daughter. The situation most likely won’t improve in the next six years as she gets ready for college. We do not want her graduating college with debt, so we have a lot to plan ahead for to accomplish that. I like your suggestions for alternatives and think they are completely legitimate to consider.

  6. Hi Brian – I don’t think we’ve reached the point where college is no longer worth attending. But at the same time we need to work about a balance on the cost/benefit side. If a $30,000 job seems likely at graduation, then maybe limit the cost of college ot $30,000, paying at least some of it along the way to minimize debt. $10-$15,000 in student loan debt won’t ruin a young persons life, but $50-$100,000 very well could.

    The pay-any-price-for-a-“good”-college-education thinking has got to come to a merciful end.

  7. Great article. I still think college is a great investment despite the rising cost. I suggest that students attend their local community college to save money and take that time to figure out what major they want to pursue. I like that you noted alternatives to colleges, there are many out there and a good opportunity to get trained in specialty jobs. To secure a good job out of college students need to build their resume while in college with internships, projects, volunteering, joining clubs or working part time.

  8. I couldn’t agree more. You just sumarized my next post. Now I don’t need to write it! (I’m a graduate of a community college, and a big fan of them.)

  9. There are lots of different ways to make money these days. The real problem is that the school system trains and conditions kids to go to college and get a job. That’s what the whole goal is. Kids are not taught how to create income (vs. working for a paycheck). And that’s probably because the people teaching them don’t know how either.

  10. I agree completely. I’d even take it a step farther – I think much of the problem with the lackluster economy is that too many people are sitting around waiting for someone to give them a job, or a better one than they have now. We need entrepreneurs who will create their own jobs. But as you say, the school system doesn’t teach that.

    Of course, logically it can’t. They’re manned by employees, not entrepreneurs. Employees can’t teach you to be anything but employees.

Leave a reply