Women's Tennis Association

Employers increasingly want Ivy League grads for minor-league jobs.

The tennis star Venus Williams just earned a business degree from Indiana University East. Now let’s hope she doesn’t come for your job. The way the workforce is shaping up, employers are increasingly hiring people with college degrees for jobs that don’t require college-degree skills. John Cassidy took a look at why this is happening in his article “College Calculus” in this week’s New Yorker.

It’s not news that college grads have lately been taking jobs that are beneath their academic qualifications, especially since the recession. “But something deeper, and more lasting, also seems to be happening,” writes Cassidy. Pointing to a 2013 study conducted by Canadian economists, he reports on the decreasing demand from employers for college-educated workers coinciding with significant growth in the supply of low-wage jobs since 2000. Which led the economists to conclude:

High-skilled workers have moved down the occupational ladder and have begun to perform jobs traditionally performed by lower-skilled workers, [and are thus] pushing low-skilled workers even further down the occupational ladder.

The solution must be simple, then: Get more low-skilled workers into college so they can better compete in the job market. Wait, that won’t quite work: Cassidy reports that employers are even being snobby about which college grads they hire. A survey of over 100 headhunters conducted by Lauren Rivera, a sociology professor at the Kellogg School of Management, found that they “recruited almost exclusively from the very top-ranked schools, and simply ignored most other applicants.”

For African Americans who aren’t in college or did not complete a degree, this is a whole new form of disenfranchisement to contend with. As it stands, only 14 percent of African-American job applicants without criminal records get called back by employers, according to a 2003 study from sociologist Devah Pager. (Only 5 percent of those with criminal records were called back.) Similar stats hold for black women and Latinas, according to a U.S. Justice Department study. Even white job applicants with criminal records got better responses from potential employers than did black applicants without criminal records. It’s alarming to think that a college degree might only marginally increase African-American job-seekers’ chances for a call back, much less an interview.

“It certainly shows that having a degree won’t guarantee certain levels of social advancement like we often purport they’ll do, and that’s been particularly clear for black and Latino students, for whom the degree is just not worth that much,” says Andre Perry, founding dean of Davenport University’s recently created college of urban education. Despite this—or because of it—Perry strongly believes that people of color and those with low incomes should still pursue a four-year degree. This week, he wrote a column for The Hechinger Report criticizing the idea that perhaps some people should pursue trades directly out of high school rather than taking an expensive detour through college. Writes Perry:

Clearly, not everyone goes to college. But the “[college is] not for everyone” verbiage is most frequently used in conversations about improving education for low-income students. … College isn’t just for people whom we deem ready. We actually need to educate and transform people whom we’re not ready for. Achievement as a result of selectivity isn’t education—it’s selectivity.

Selectivity is already present in the workforce. Which means graduates are more likely to come out of college with debt they won’t be able to pay off with the jobs they get. The highest stakes for “giving it the old college try” are for students from low-income households, for whom college might be their only ticket toward livable wages. That shouldn’t be confused with having little or nothing to lose.

As Ben Casselman reported for fivethirtyeight.com, it’s becoming harder for poorer students to get into college, and college enrollment gaps are much wider when looking at income as opposed to race. We could be reaching a point where poorer people can neither afford to get a job, because college grads are taking them, nor afford to get into college, because it’s too expensive.  A July 2015 report from the National Center for Education Statistics found that the average tuition and fees for “full-time, first-time degree/certificate-seeking undergraduates at public and nonprofit 4-year institutions increased from 2012-2013 to 2014-2015… .

As the labor market more readily privileges those who can afford college—particularly very good colleges—poor students stand less of a chance even if they can manage to get into a university. Wharton School professor Peter Cappelli writes in his book Will College Pay Off? that many students are coming out of these academies worse off financially than when they went in. Writes Cappelli, (as cited in Cassidy’s article):

Looking at the actual return on the costs of attending college, careful analyses suggest that the payoff from many college programs—as much as one in four—is actually negative. ... Incredibly, the schools seem to add nothing to the market value of the students.

Not exactly a selling point for people already trapped in the low-wage economy. Meanwhile, those workers are losing job opportunities to people trained for higher-skilled jobs.

Soon, you may need to make as much money as Venus Williams to go to college at all. Perhaps this makes sense in a society where college-dropout rappers get invited to deliver college commencement speeches and collect honorary Ph.D.s. It used to be that you needed a degree to augment your chances of getting wealthy; now it’s the other way around.

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