NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

What About the Margin?

August 13, 2010

In their study, "Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018," researchers Anthony Carnevale, Nicole Smith and Jeff Strohl conclude that a college degree is definitely "worth it" and that the American workforce will soon face a serious shortage of college-educated workers.  However, if you look closely at the data, you reach the opposite conclusions, says George Leef, director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. 

One of the paper's main arguments is that people with college degrees on average earn substantially more than people who don't, so it follows that the market is indicating the need for more college graduates.  While it's true that on average, those who have college degrees earn significantly more than do those without them, but that doesn't tell us anything about the margin, says Leef.  

For instance, will an individual who could go to college but is only a mediocre student necessarily enjoy a wage premium if he or she decides on college?  A close look at the income distribution data shows: 

  • The top earning category (over $67,500 per year) is dominated by people with college education (76 percent with an associate's degree or higher).
  • In the lowest two categories, however, you also find a substantial number of college-educated people.
  • Among those making $20,000 or less annually, 6 percent have master's degrees or higher, 14 percent have bachelor's degrees, and 9 percent have associate's degrees.
  • Same for the group earning between $20,000 and $35,000 per year -- 5 percent have a master's or higher, 15 percent have a bachelor's, and 11 percent have an associate's degree. 

That's a large number of people with college education under their belt who are earning below-average incomes.  For quite a few years, scholars have been pointing out that many college graduates spill over into jobs traditionally done by high school graduates (or dropouts), says Leef.  

Without realizing it -- the authors of the paper provide corroborative evidence on this point by showing that many college-educated workers are in jobs that do not call for any academic training, says Leef. 

Source: George Leef, "This Paper Refutes Itself," Pope Center, August 4, 2010. 

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