economics, education, Thought Provoking

College Degrees Are Losing Meaning: An Argument Against Accessibility

The Ph.D. will become a nonsensical title when it becomes commonplace in the workforce → This is the direction that the United States is headed.

On August 22, 2013, President Obama stated, “… [The] bottom line is higher education cannot be a luxury. It’s an economic imperative.” The president may be on to something. Generally speaking, the more college graduates that are in the work force, the greater the medium income for all families who hold a degree, or don’t. I will share why this is true a bit later. Obama’s vision for education in the United States is that, living in America means having the means to send your child to college. This vision culminated into a program called the American Graduation Initiative (AGI). The purpose of this initiative is to make college accessible to all citizens despite family income. The goal, Obama says, is that “By 2020, this nation will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.”

America is falling behind globally in this category. Countries such as Canada, have 57% of their working population with a university degree. While the United States is at 43% in the same category (ages 25-34). If Obama’s vision is realized, then 60% of U.S citizens will hold a college degree by 2020. A lofty goal.

To accomplish this, Obama’s $12 billion-dollar plan (later cut to $2 billion to pass Obama Care) focuses on funding community colleges. Community colleges were specifically chosen because statistics showed community colleges were under preparing students who transferred to a university, which increased their likelihood to drop out. (Bound p.129-157).

Many universities united on this platform and continue to hold annual conferences supporting this educational goal. This policy gave the academic community a blue print for the future. So far, there is every intent to see it through.

Setting the Stage:

  • Due to “under prepared” students, there has been a decline in graduation rates, with the U.S ranking 19th out of 28 countries.
  • Obama counteracts this decline with the AGI’s plan for 60% of Americans to hold a college degree by 2020.


Let’s zoom out and take a brief look at what happened to the high school diploma. According to Educational Policy Institute’s publication, “Landscape of Public Education”, only 6.2% of the U.S. population held a high school diploma from 1910-1920. The data shows that education past the 8th grade was not necessary to find work during this period, enabling a clear majority of students to drop out after 8th grade. As time went on, the market became crowded, forcing workers to make themselves stand out. How does a worker establish themselves as more qualified when they have no prior work experience? Education, and it worked, for a little while anyways. One hundred years later, in 2017, 90% of students that attend high school graduated in almost all states. (Kamenetz, Anya, and Cory Turner). As a result, having a high school diploma does not make you qualified for much more than minimum wage. It is becoming increasingly clear that the bachelor’s degree is on a similar path, if not, already there.

Stated Hypothesis:

  • It took the high school diploma less than 100 years to completely devalue in the workplace. History will repeat itself with the higher degrees.

At the core of this article is one question: what are the implications of having too many college graduates in the workforce? Does it depreciate the value of the diploma? The degree indicates “certified/qualified”. It’s supposed to be a form of accreditation (really a sort of signifyer) that all employers trust. So, from an employer’s perspective, it must be concerning to hear that there is $2 billion dollars being thrown at colleges to make it easier than ever to get a degree. So, naturally the question arises: “If a University hands out too many diplomas, what happens?” Well, it devalues – in more ways than one. As education becomes more accessible, the standards will drop along with it, producing a less than capable workforce. Here’s what I mean → ⇓⇓

Is there explicit evidence that U.S standards of education are declining? Well, not exactly. (At least in the sense that there are no obvious/specific figures to glean at). What do I mean then? It is depressingly easy to find college grads and professors testifying this decline. Just a quick google search, “my bachelor’s degree is worthless” will land you with 798,000 results with the first 18 pages (that’s as far as I got) filled with “how to use your worthless bachelor’s degree” and multi-dozens of links to forums on the subject. In one such link, I found, Steve Patterson, who is the author of philosophically charged novel “Square One”. He spoke about the quality of education he received at a top-tier school: “Though it might sound silly, it was discouraging to get good grades with the amount of work I put into college. It just seemed wrong… There was no critical thinking, nothing but regurgitating the plot so the professor knew we read the book, then writing some fluffy nonsense about grandiose interpretations and personal feelings. And that exercise was supposed to strengthen my college education. As if creating wild meta-narratives and writing down my feelings were an employable skill.” Mr. Patterson was particularly mad about the lack of preparation for life outside of college. And he was not alone.

On the flip side, I found a tenured professor with 40 years of university experience relating the decline to overpopulation: “Over the past fifteen years my classes have more than doubled in size… the increase in class size means that it becomes necessary to cut down on writing assignments and allows less time per student for conferences, which are designed to support idea development, correct errors in usage and logic, or suggest productive lines of thought.” All the symptoms he listed happen to support a paper done on the subject, “Class Size: Does It Really Matter?”, published by John Hopkins School of Education. It validates that a smaller class size is beneficial to student learning in school and beyond.

I implore you to think again about accessibility, do we really want to crowd colleges with more students?

“Act I” Recap!:

  • The more crowded college becomes, the harder it is to maintain high learning standards.
  • Too many graduates in the economy accelerates the degradation of the college diploma.
  • Education loses all power and meaning within 100 years (just like the high school diploma)


Before community colleges began turning out under-prepared students, hundreds of companies would set up job fairs on college campuses to farm for talent. This still goes on today but more as a tradition. The common reason is this: “… These companies are attending job fairs not because they have any intention of doing any serious recruiting work there but rather because they’ve just mindlessly decided that job fairs are something that their HR departments “should” do” (Green, from “Ask a Manager”). The college campus is supposed to be where the qualified workforce lives and breathes. This may be true but does it translate into an employee that adds value to your company? Not necessarily. So, what does a company do when the educational qualifications are there but the talent isn’t? They outsource the talent. Specifically, they hire another company to farm for employable talent – a company like, Praxis.

Praxis is a nine-month, “boot-camp” alternative to college and serves a form of accreditation. The core of their education program specifically gears the individual for the modern workforce. The program includes a six-month internship and personal mentorship. Upon completion, the student is guaranteed a position at one of the tech-startups that partners with Praxis.

Isaac Morehouse, founder and CEO, was inspired to bring Praxis to life when he kept hearing that companies had no problem finding “qualified” candidates, but not talented ones. To solve this problem, Praxis does a rigorous four-step screening process to find the most ideal employee for the company. By the end of the program, students are better equipped and even groomed, for the workforce. In turn, they create value in the company that chooses them.


Act II (on alternatives):

  • Employers seek employees that add value to their company, which may mean having more than a college degree on your resume.


There is one glaring trend that I keep ignoring, but it’s too important not to include. That is the link between how educated the workforce is and how economically robust the city becomes.

Allow me to introduce Enrico Moretti, economics professor at University of California Berkley, and author of, “The New Geography of Jobs.” His book has made waves in its field of study. Mr. Moretti spent fifteen years asking one question, “What makes some cities more economically robust than others?” His research lead him to this insight: cities with a highly-educated workforce have the most creative and innovative workforce. The key ingredient being that the majority of citizens have one or more degrees. It made for an economically robust environment and in turn, a strong city. Specifically, what Enrico Moretti found was, “For each new high-tech job in a city, five additional jobs are ultimately created outside of the high-tech sector in that city, both in skilled occupations (lawyers, teachers, nurses) and in unskilled ones (waiters, hairdressers, carpenters).”  The thriving cites had within it, innovative companies like Apple, Google, and bio-tech startups. Most employees at a high-tech job, have a degree or multiple degrees. All this innovation creates a thriving economy that raises the median wage of everyone in it. His prediction is that this trend will only increase.

Act III (the opposition):

  • As of right now, a decorated workforce in education is a good thing for the economy.
  • As the workforce becomes more educated, the better paid everyone will be.


To wrap it up, here is a real picture of the market’s demand for a college diploma: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), only 27% of jobs in the United States require a college degree (associates degree or higher). But, as mentioned earlier, 47% of the workforce holds a college degree. The BLS projection for 2022 is illuminating. It estimates the economy creating 50.6 million job openings with only 27.1% requiring a college degree.

Living in 2017, we are able to see only the earliest stages of what I call graduate over-flow. However, it’s important to keep in mind where we are headed. There are government policies in place that will affect the climate of industry. If the trend parallels with the high school diploma, then we might have about 100 years before the Ph.D. reaches a similar value. However, I have faith that the market will correct itself and the demand for degrees will decrease.


Works Cited


Bound, John, Michael F. Lovenheim, and Sarah Turner. “Why Have College Completion Rates Declined? An Analysis of Changing Student Preparation and Collegiate Resources.” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 2.3 (2010): 129-57. American Economic Association. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.

Green, Alison. “Have You Ever Gotten a Job from a Job Fair?” Ask A Manager. Job Searching, 11 Mar. 2011. Web. 31 Mar. 2017.

Kamenetz, Anya, and Cory Turner. “The High School Graduation Rate Reaches A Record High – Again.” NPRed How Learning Happens. NPR, 17 Oct. 2016. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.

PBS Newshour, Too Many College Grads? Or too few? Carnevale, Anthony, Strohl, Jeff, Smith, Nicole. February 21, 2014.

Obama, Barak O. “Remarks by the President on College Affordability.” State University of New York Buffalo Buffalo, New York. New York, Buffalo. 22 Aug. 2013. The White House – President Barak Obama. Web. 28 Mar. 2017.

Rios, Robert J. “Class Size: Does It Really Matter?” Johns Hopkins School of Education – Home. New Horizons for Learning, 15 May 2013. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s “Education at a Glance.” Business Insider Education, September 9, 2014.

Geiger, Roger, Heller, Donald. The Economist: Higher Education: Not what it used to be. December 1, 2012.