There are many villains in the story of the student debt bubble. The universities that charge exorbitant tuition rates simply because they can, bilking working families out of thousands of dollars for an education that isn’t worth a fraction of the cost, should be the first in line to absorb the blame. But it is a long line indeed. The government has earned a hefty portion of our collective scorn for issuing predatory loans to kids fresh out of high school with no assets or income. And blame goes to the public school system for indiscriminately pushing students into college, and to parents who add to the pressure, which I’m convinced is as much about their own vanity as it is their concern for their child’s financial future. We can thank all of these people for $1.5 trillion in student debt.
But there’s another group that seems to have largely escaped the public’s wrath, despite their unique role in driving this entirely unnecessary crisis. We take it for granted that our kids “need” to obtain a college degree because so many jobs require them, but the need is mostly artificial. Thousands of employers across the country have chosen to arbitrarily inflate their job requirements, often demanding that applicants have degrees for positions that don’t actually necessitate them. And it’s only getting worse. Positions that didn’t require any degree 20 years ago now require a bachelor’s, and positions that required a bachelors 20 years ago now require a master’s. This, again, is artificial. People without degrees could perform the tasks necessary for most of these positions but employers disqualify them from consideration right out of the gate, for no good reason.
Obviously, some jobs really do require additional formal schooling. Nobody is suggesting that a guy with a high school diploma should be hired off the street to perform brain surgery at Johns Hopkins. But most jobs outside of science and medicine have to be learned by doing. It’s not as though companies save money on training new hires by limiting themselves to college graduates. They still have to train the college graduates, which is no surprise because most college graduates have little to no work experience.
It might be argued that employers look for the degree because, even if it’s in dance theory or comparative religion, it at least proves that the applicant is competent and hardworking. Well, I’d like to see some research supporting that assumption. I see no reason to conclude that college grads are any smarter, any more competent, or any harder working than non-college grads. In fact, I’d wager that the scale tips the other way. A 23-year-old who has been working and supporting himself since 18 has already demonstrated, at a minimum, that he has the basic skills necessary to be a functioning adult in society. A 23-year-old who has been sitting in classrooms all that time has not demonstrated that or anything else. All the college degree proves, in and of itself, is that he either had the money to pay for a degree or was willing to take on the debt. Why should that fact alone mean that his resume goes to the top of the stack?
We all know the truth. Employers demand high price degrees for entry level positions that a moderately intelligent monkey could learn in less than week simply out of laziness. The degree requirement is a way to cull the herd of applicants, making it easier and quicker to sift through. If qualified applicants are tossed aside, that’s a sacrifice the employer is willing to make for the sake of streamlining the process. But if it wasn’t for the arbitrary demands of these lazy HR departments, kids out of high school may not feel the need to take on crushing debt just to obtain a piece of paper that may only ever function as a calling card that prevents their resumes from being automatically thrown in the trash.
Perhaps the companies that unjustly discriminate against competent workers who lack that piece of paper should finally start absorbing some of the scorn and blame we direct everywhere except at them. Yes, they have every right to come up with whatever unnecessary and expensive job requirements they want. But they deserve to be named and shamed for it. Much of the current crisis is their fault. And it’s about time we hold them responsible for it.