Experts who study the phenomenon say it’s due, at least in part, to the widening role of technology. “The seeds for degree inflation were planted as the nature of jobs was changing,” says Raman. “More and more automation created jobs that are called the same thing but require different competencies.”
She gives the example of a lineman working for a utility company. “Two decades ago, you were talking about somebody shimmying up a pole. You needed to be physically strong and able to work in all weather conditions, and that’s what made you successful,” she says. “Now, that job is very different. You’re in a pneumatic machine. You use a smart device to connect with the central headquarters to figure out the problem. You’re still using your hands, but also a lot of data inputs coming at you through technology.”
The people currently doing the work don’t have degrees, but as they retire or leave their positions, their replacements will be expected to
A version of this shift is present in just about any other industry you can name. “As more automation came in, there was more demand on these workers to display social skills. What you now needed was someone who could talk to a customer, who could articulate the problem and problem-solve,” says Raman. But rather than look for candidates with those specific qualifications, “many companies took the easy route of using the four-year college degree as a proxy: ‘I know if they have a degree, they’ll be able to use an iPad. They’ll be able to use Excel’.”
Those positions then become difficult to fill, because even middle-skill workers with experience are excluded by automated application tools that cut out those without degrees. “Many middle-skills jobs synonymous with middle-class lifestyles and upward mobility – such as supervisors, support specialists, sales representatives, inspectors and testers, clerks and secretaries and administrative assistants – are now considered hard-to-fill jobs because employers prefer candidates who are college graduates,” according to the Harvard Business School paper.
This focus on degrees creates exclusionary conditions, the “worst-case scenario” of which, says Ray Bachan, a senior lecturer at the University of Brighton’s Business School, “is a lack of intergenerational mobility. It all has social connotations”. Less affluent parents are less likely to have children who go to college, he explains. And when those children struggle to find jobs, the result is a generation failing to be more successful than the one before it.
Crucially, degree inflation has a significant impact on populations that are less likely to graduate from a four-year programme. In the United States, black and Latino students are conferred just 11% and 14% of annual Bachelor’s degrees, respectively.