Employers and career experts see a growing problem in American society an abundance of college graduates, many burdened with tuition-loan debt, heading into the work world with a degree that doesn't mean much anymore.
The problem isn't just a soft job market it's an oversupply of graduates. In 1973, a bachelor's degree was more of a rarity, since just 47% of high school graduates went on to college. By October 2008, that number had risen to nearly 70%. For many Americans today, a trip through college is considered as much of a birthright as a driver's license.
Marty Nemko, a career and education expert who has taught at U.C. Berkeley's Graduate School of Education, contends that the overflow in degree holders is the result of many weaker students attending colleges when other options may have served them better. "There is tremendous pressure to push kids through," he says, adding that as a result, too many students who aren't skilled become degree holders, promoting a perception among employers that higher education doesn't work. "That piece of paper no longer means very much, and employers know that," says Nemko. "Everybody's got it, so it's watered down."
What's not watered down is the tab. The cost of average tuition rose 6.5% this fall, and a report released on Dec. 1 by the Project on Student Debt showed that the IOU is getting bigger. Two-thirds of all students now leave college with outstanding loans; the average amount of debt rose to $23,200 in 2008. In the last academic year, the total amount loaned to students increased about 18% from the previous year, to $81 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Meanwhile, the unemployment rate for recent grads rose as well. It is now 10.6%, a record high.
The devaluation of a college degree is no secret on campus. An annual survey by the Higher Education Research Institute has long asked freshmen what they think their highest academic degree will be. In 1972, 38% of respondents said a bachelor's degree, but in 2008 only 22% answered the same. The number of freshmen planning to get a master's degree rose from 31% in 1972 to 42% in 2008. Says John Pryor, the institute's director: "Years ago, the bachelor's degree was the key to getting better jobs. Now you really need more than that."
Employers stress that a basic degree remains essential, carefully tiptoeing around the idea that its value has plummeted. But they admit that the degree alone is not the ace it once was; now they emphasize work experience as a way to make yourself stand out. Dan Black, director of campus recruiting in the Americas for Ernst & Young, and his team will hire more than 4,000 people this year out of 20,000 applicants. There are a lot of things besides a degree "that will help differentiate how much attention you get," says the veteran hirer, who has been screening graduates for 15 years.
Enterprise Rent-A-Car hiring guru Marie Artim, who says her company will hire 8,000 of 200,000 applicants worldwide, has found that her applicant pool is changing. "While 10 years ago we may have had the same numbers, today we have higher-quality and better-qualified applicants," she says.
So what does it take to impress recruiters today? Daniel Pink, an author on motivation in the workplace, agrees that the bachelor's degree "is necessary, but it's just not sufficient," at times doing little more than verifying "that you can more or less show up on time and stick with it." The author of A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future says companies want more. They're looking for people who can do jobs that can't be outsourced, he says, and graduates who "don't require a lot of hand-holding."
Left-brain abilities that used to guarantee jobs have become easy to automate, while right-brain abilities are harder to find "design, seeing the big picture, connecting the dots," Pink says. He cites cognitive skills and self-direction as the types of things companies look for in job candidates. "People have to be able to do stuff that's hard to outsource," he says. "It used to be for blue collar; it's now for white collar too."
For now, graduates can steer their careers where job growth is strong education, health care and nonprofit programs like Teach for America, says Trudy Steinfeld, a career counselor at New York University. "Every college degree is not cookie cutter. It's what you have done during that degree to distinguish yourself."