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According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 37.5 percent of Americans aged 25 to 29 had at least a bachelor’s degree in 2012, compared with 24.7 percent in 1995, compared with 21.9 percent in 1975. Skeptics may argue that an increase in degree attainment is likely due to the increases in population: with more people, we should naturally have more degrees. From 1975 to 2012, however, the population of Americans aged 25 to 29 has risen only by 18.3 percent, indicating that the trend between individuals and degrees is not as linear as we once thought. Now, to keep up with increases in academic competition, jobs that once required a high school diploma now require a bachelor’s or technical degree; jobs that once required a bachelor’s degree now require a master’s; jobs that once required a master’s now require a Ph.D. And the cycle continues. Such a cycle, dubbed “academic inflation,” is the process by which the value of higher education degrees becomes inflated as a result of too many people becoming educated. Such a shift in paradigm, where too many people are now becoming educated and obtaining degrees, affects not only on America’s academic infrastructure, but shapes young individuals and society.
At this point, you may be asking yourself, “What is wrong with that? People getting educated and having more degrees is a good thing, right?” According to the United States Census Bureau, if the pattern of academic inflation continues at a linear rate, we can expect approximately 55 percent of Americans aged 25 to 29 to hold at least a bachelor’s degree by 2025. Such a trend suggests that people now have to become increasingly educated and obtain more degrees to be deemed employable. As Keith Rispin, an education technology integration specialist, remarks, where once a bachelors degree was a ticket to the good life, we have seen its value decline and become little more than the minimum level of education one needs if they hope to be ‘gainfully employed’… The High School Diploma, societies previous academic minimum, is virtually useless as a gateway into today’s work world.” Now, the observe degree devaluation has infiltrated the sanctified realm of postgraduate degrees. Even in the 1970’s, having or needing a master’s or Ph.D. was rare, whereas today, it is ubiquitous. From 2002 to 2012, the highest rate of increases in education attainment levels was doctorate and master’s degrees, according to studies from the United States Census Bureau. The population with a doctorate grew by approximately 1 million, or 45 percent, while those who held a master’s climbed by 5 million, or 43 percent within a decade alone. Ultimately, the education of too many people has rendered a high school diploma and progressively, a bachelor’s degree, more or less obsolete in terms of job prospect.
Aside from a lackluster job outlook, academic inflation has a powerful and telling influence on what society values today. Nowadays, children steamroll through their education by acquiring degrees and theoretical knowledge without a hint of tangible experience in their fields. In the past, attaining a postgraduate degree was something special, an indication exceptional academic achievement, but today the degrees have simply become part of the common currency used for acquiring gainful employment. Where once, the phrase “experience tells us” was something valued and respected, it has now been replaced by “studies have shown us” or “the research tells us.” Such a stark contrast from experience to theoretical knowledge shows a shift in focus: getting degrees with theoretical knowledge is more important than experience itself.
With degrees losing their value, certain parties of universities and corporations are harboring massive gains from academic inflation. Instead of focusing on on-the-job training, as in the past, young individuals are paying to stay in academia to procure more degrees. As more and more people obtain degrees, university revenues inherently increase, enabling them to justify tuition hikes and increase investment. Likewise, corporations are now hiring graduates of master’s and doctoral programs for the same position they used a high school graduate less than decades ago. Hence, in a way, the corporate world is profiting by hiring “more brain for the buck.”
Although universities and corporations benefit, academic inflation has a particularly deleterious effect on students. According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, over the past 40 years, household income has increased by a factor of 6.5, while college tuition costs have increased by a factor of 15 for instate and 24 for out of state students. The cost of attending a private college has increased by a factor of more than 13. As stated in a 2010 issue of “The Economist,” “academic inflation makes medical inflation look modest by comparison.” As a result of academic inflation, young people not only need increasing amounts of education to find jobs, but they also need the financial resources to be able to pay for the price of education.
In arguments denying academic inflation, many contest that jobs can still be found without a master’s or doctoral degree. While it is perhaps true, it is critical to understand that the percentage of jobs that higher with a high school diploma or bachelor’s degree is steadily declining. With rapidly increasing numbers of candidates with master’s or doctoral degrees, employers have a more favorable pool to choose from and will typically defer to the candidate of higher academic achievement. Oftentimes, college-educated individuals choose jobs that do not require higher degrees due to academic inflation itself. In interviews conducted by the LA Times, Ryan Flagherty, a bartender with an economics degree, and Saim Montakim, a taxi driver with an accounting degree, share their stories. A college degree once guaranteed a well-paying job and higher earnings than a high school graduate, but now, the guarantee is lost. When asked about the trend of degrees becoming valueless, Flagherty remarked, “The main reason is a pretty simple one. The number of college graduates has grown vastly faster than the number of jobs that require high-level education skills.” Hence, too many people are being educated. Similarly, even after receiving a degree in accounting, Montakim was not offered more than $10.00 and hour. Montakim, who is from Bangladesh, came to the United States to receive an education. He believed that with a college degree, he would be able to find a well-paying job and build a life for himself in America. Now, he is pursuing a master’s degree in human resources to find a better job and acknowledges that his perception that a job came with a college education may have been unrealistic. In the interview, he explains, “I’ve always had a dream of being in America, for an American education in the United States. But now I think my expectations were too high. I was far, far beyond reality.” In concurrence with academic inflation, college degrees no longer guarantee a job due to their devaluation as a result of too many people becoming educated.
Over the past few years, the number of people pursuing higher studies has grown exponentially while job outlook has remained stagnant. The resulting devaluation of degrees attests to the reality of academic inflation and can be seen even in our generation. When I was young, my grandfather received a job offer right out of high school to work as a mechanical engineer at his community train station. Now, the same position would require at least a bachelor’s or technical degree, if not a master’s or a doctorate.
As more and more people receive degrees, it will be interesting to see the effect of academic inflation on academia, the job market, and our generation, who will be the primary guinea pigs in having to combat such a phenomena. Academic inflation has benefited universities and corporations, but has been an impediment to students and young individuals who are struggling to adjust to the changing academic climate.