Despite a new report by labor analytics firm Burning Glass Technologies that 43 percent of college graduates today are underemployed, the myth about the marketability of a bachelor’s degree refuses to die (“Some 43% of College Grads Are Underemployed in First Job,” The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 27). That’s not at all surprising because the wage premium attached to a four-year degree is based on evidence from the past.
When a college degree was a rarity, holders could major in whatever they wanted without concern about finding a job commensurate with their education. But today, a bachelor’s degree is so common that what students major in is far more important. For example, I question the market value of a degree in gender studies. Yet students do opt for that major despite evidence that is virtually useless in the job market.
When I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1950s, employers were not particularly interested in my liberal arts major. Perhaps that was because the mere possession of a B.A. from an Ivy League school signaled that I had the wherewithal to be an asset. But that was then. Today, so many young people have degrees from such a variety of schools that employers seek concrete evidence about what they can immediately contribute.
I think what we are seeing is a variation of Gresham’s Law, which said that cheap money drives dear money out of circulation. The easy availability of a degree from some colleges in some majors today will make the possession of a degree in STEM from a marquee-name school so much more valuable.
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