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`Degree Inflation`: How the Four-Year Degree Became Required

Elven years ago, Allie Cornett realized that she was not ready for college and that she had lost interest in the geology degree she was pursuing at a university in Hawaii, dropped out of school and started working in the hospitality industry as a guide. tourist. over the next decade, she repeatedly found herself bumping into the same wall. “I have been told several times that I have a great track record and a lot of experience, but no degree … so no potential for upward movement” says Cornett, 33.
In the last company he worked for, he applied for open management positions consistently for five years, “only to not get them because someone with less experience, but who had a degree, did.” Cornett is the victim of a phenomenon called ‘degree inflation’: the growing demand for undergraduate degrees in jobs that didn’t always require one, and probably don’t require one now. It’s a widespread problem, says Manjari Raman, director of the Harvard Business School project on managing the future of According to a 2017 paper, co-author of Raman, “the graduation gap – the discrepancy between applying for a college degree in offers and employees who currently do that job who have a college degree – that’s significant.
For example, in 2015, 67% of production supervisor job advertisements applied for a college degree, while only 16% of production supervisors employed he had one. ” In other words, people currently in work do not have college degrees, but when they retire or leave their positions, their replacements are expected to do. This creates a system in which businesses struggle to fill jobs and generate unnecessary costs, while skilled, willing workers are left out in the cold. The rate of inflation has been a major problem in the labor market for decades, but the problem is even more pressing. We are facing a post-pandemic economy that needs a serious and quick restart.

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.

Unreliable signals

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.

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