The overeducated bartender moves up

Don’t listen to doomsayers who knock the value of a college degree, writes Ed Sector‘s Kevin Carey in The New Republic.

Sally Cameron studied French and Arabic at an elite liberal arts college, then earned an Ivy League management degree.  But when she hit the market, the economy was in recession and unemployment was high. She was forced to tend bar and fill her time with volunteer work.

Labor economists warned that a surplus of diploma-ed workers would push down long-term wages for college graduates.

As one George Washington University labor economist said, “A surfeit of any commodity—a BA or an MA—means that eventually it will stop paying off.”

It’s an old story, Carey writes. Sally Cameron earned her master’s degree from Yale in 1980. A Washington Post story on her struggles was published in 1982.

For going on four decades, the press has been raising alarms that college degrees may no longer be a sound investment. Two things about these stories have remained constant: They always feature an over-educated bartender, and they are always wrong.

In 1976, The New York Times wrote a front-page story warning that “college-educated Americans are losing their economic advantage.” People magazine asked: “Is a college degree still a passport to white collar success?”

The answer, it turned it out, was unequivocally “Yes.” . . . Students continued to matriculate in record numbers. The percent of adults with a bachelor’s degree passed 20 percent in the 1980s, 25 percent in the 1990s, and stands just below 30 percent today. Yet despite the increase in supply, the price that employers were willing to pay for college graduates went up, not down. The inflation-adjusted median wage of bachelor’s degree holders increased by 34 percent from 1983 to 2008. (The earnings for high school dropouts, on the other hand, fell by 2 percent during the same time.) People with graduate degrees did even better, increasing their earnings by 55 percent.

Yet the media kept warning of a grim future for college graduates, always featuring a young grad working as a janitor, meter maid or file clerk and living on food stamps, Ramen noodles or Mom’s cooking, Carey writes. The doom-and-gloom stories ignore the fact that overeducated bartenders are likely to move up in the world.

Back in 1982, the Postwrote about Mel Rodenstein, a Peace Corps alum with a master’s degree in international affairs who was slaving away in a “mindless” file clerk job, forced to cut coupons and subsist on rice and beans. He went on to a series of nonprofit management jobs and, by 2010, was a senior research project supervisor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Health.

In 1993, a Post article titled “Grads Without Jobs” described two young women graduating from good state universities who planned to spend a year wandering North America in a station wagon because “there are no jobs anyway.” Today, one of them lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, and runs her own H.R. consulting firm. The other got a PhD and works 20 feet away from this author in a Washington, DC think tank.

Sally Cameron is a senior manager at an international development consulting company that works under contract with USAID. Her recent work includes building railroads in cyclone-devastated Madagascar. Her liberal arts degree from Smith College must come in handy, since one of the two official languages there is French. That’s how things usually work out for people who get college degrees.

After eight years as a student (and janitor), Joseph Bast never completed a bachelor’s degree at the University of Chicago. He’s too busy running a think tank.

POSTED BY Joanne Jacobs ON July 6, 2011

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