Is a college degree still a passport to white-collar success? For decades Americans have taken it as an article of faith. But in “The Declining Value of College Going,” an article in the September issue of Change magazine, Harvard’s Richard Freeman and MIT’s J. Herbert Hollomon declared that degree holders no longer necessarily have it made. Their findings will come as no surprise to the estimated one-fourth of the class of ’72 throughout the country—the last class for which statistics are available—who were forced to accept non-professional, non-managerial jobs after graduation. Dr. Freeman, an associate professor of economics, has expanded his conclusions into a book entitled The Overeducated American, to be published this spring. Between his classes at Harvard, he discussed the declining monetary value of college training and its implications with Dick Friedman of PEOPLE.
Is it still worth it to go to college?
Yes—but, economically speaking, a college degree is not worth as much as it has been in the past.
What statistics indicate this?
Well, for instance, in 1969, full-time male workers with four years of college earned 53 percent more than those with four years of high school. In 1973, they earned only 40 percent more. And for younger graduates—those 25 to 34—the earning advantage of a college degree fell to 23 percent.
When and how did prospects for college graduates begin to sour?
The decline began at the outset of the ’70s. In contrast to the booming ’60s, college manpower-intensive sectors of the economy—like education, research and development firms, and defense industries—failed to grow. This in turn had an adverse impact on manufacturing industries which traditionally hire college graduates for managerial and sales positions. And while demand slowed, supply soared. From 1969-75, the number of new graduates on the job market grew by 8 percent a year; the previous decade, it had increased only 2 percent a year.
Which degrees were hardest hit?
The academic and research fields—humanities, languages, elementary and secondary school education, many Ph.D.’s, some sciences—have been the big losers. Biological sciences and psychology may soon join them.
Which degrees are now most salable?
Degrees in business-oriented and technical fields. Recently-graduated engineers, accountants and geologists, to name a few, have all been doing relatively well.
Aren’t some graduates out of the white-collar market by choice, seeking alternate life-styles?
That attitude disappeared rather quickly. When times were flush, people had more options. Now that things are tight, most people are income-motivated.
Was it ever really the function of college to guarantee jobs? What about knowledge for its own sake?
Most students—maybe two-thirds—say that a very important reason for going to college is to get a good job. When I was teaching at the University of Chicago, I made this point to a group of grad students and professors in the physical sciences. One professor demurred, saying, “We’re only interested in knowledge.” The students hooted him down. To them, the notion that they weren’t economically motivated was ridiculous.
Are prospective college entrants responding to the lowered value of the degree and not attending college?
Young white men are responding that way. The proportion of them going to college from the ’73 and ’74 high school graduating classes fell sharply from previous years. On the other hand, the proportion of both blacks and women has remained steady. In fact, for the first time ever, 1974 saw more 18-to 19-year-old women enroll in college than men.
Why the difference for blacks and women?
Job prospects for black and female degree-holders have improved relative to white males. For women, this has occurred even as the market for schoolteachers has worsened, meaning that beginning jobs may be opening up in traditionally all-male fields.
What young people are not entering college now who would have a decade ago?
The marginal student who is not academically inclined. He may once have felt that a degree’s payoff was so great he couldn’t afford not to go, but he doesn’t feel that way anymore. Then too there are people with good alternatives. Like a plumber’s son, whose father can get him into the plumber’s union now, but maybe not four or five years hence.
Will the market for degree holders improve in the future?
Yes. Things will get better in the early ’80s simply because new graduates will be a smaller percentage of the total working population. Interestingly enough, though, the graduating class of 1980 may have to compete with 30-year-olds who still haven’t found jobs correlating with their education.
How are current college students responding to the present situation?
They are taking courses that are clearly vocational, such as accounting, business administration, engineering and the medical sciences. Here at Harvard, the big jump has been in the field of economics. There has been an overall decline in the number of students taking liberal arts courses.
How have the colleges responded?
Faced with a declining pool of applicants, some schools are out hunting bodies or changing requirements. For instance, at Cazenovia College, a small liberal arts school in upstate New York, officials have said, “We are no longer in the position of telling students what the requirements are if they want a degree. Now we say, ‘You tell us what you want and we’ll provide it.’ ”
What future changes can we expect on campus?
First, a change in the product. There will be new degree programs with more vocational emphasis than before. It would be nice if liberal arts colleges would associate with trade unions. For example, we could give electricians liberal arts courses and possibly offer them a degree involving these and their vocational training. We do much the same thing with accountants now. There will also be more scheduling flexibility to attract older students.
What will this do to faculties?
It might be hard to adjust faculties to the fields that students want—that is, there may be too many French professors and not enough in accounting. Also, tenure may have already locked-in aging teachers and kept new blood from emerging. But what’s bad for the seller might be good for the buyer. I’d like to be in charge of a new university with money—I could attract a marvelous faculty.
Are we in danger, in the next few decades, of becoming a society full of grease monkeys and domestics with Ph.D.’s?
No, because as the value of the college degree declines, a smaller percentage of the population will go to college, and proportionately fewer graduates will end up with bad jobs. The proportion of college graduates in the work force will stabilize at 20-25 percent, not the 35-40 percent we’ve been heading for.
What implications will this have?
Many people may actually get less education in future generations than their parents did, and education will no longer necessarily be the way to move ahead. We’ll never return to the late ’60s situation when up to 90 percent of college graduates seemed to be guaranteed “acceptable” jobs. We don’t know yet what will replace college as an avenue of upward mobility.
What will the decline of the higher education industry mean?
Many bright people who’ve been attracted to academia in the past might turn to business and government—this is already happening. This shift of talent might be very good for us.
What is your advice to someone who is considering applying to college?
If I had a child, I would send him or her to college, taking into account the benefits and costs. Remember that the average college graduate still makes more than the non-graduate, and the market in 1980—when they graduate—will be better than it is now. On the other hand, once they get to college, they should plan with an eye to the job market. If they’re in liberal arts, they might consider a few Slavic courses—companies doing business in Eastern Europe will want them more than the American history major.