AP/File/Illustration by John Kehe/Staff
Doubts about the value of a bachelor's degree creates new routes to careers. This is part of the cover story project in the June 18, 2012 issue of The Christian Science Monitor Weekly magazine.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Bachelor's degree: Has it lost its edge and its value?

Undervalued and overpriced, the beleaguered bachelor's degree is losing its edge as the hallmark of an educated, readily employable American.

The children of white middle-class, college-educated parents, Hugh Green and Turner Jenkins are just the kind of kids everyone would expect to be stepping out into the world one sunny June day, bachelor's degrees in hand. But they both veered from the traditional American educational route.

One decided that a bachelor's was never going to be enough, while the other concluded it was unnecessary.

Mr. Green enrolled in an accelerated program that will keep him at Emory University in Atlanta for a fifth year and earn him a master's degree. Mr. Jenkins is immersed in a culinary training program in Gaithersburg, Md., that he hopes will launch his career as a chef.

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Once the hallmark of an educated and readily employable adult, the bachelor's degree is losing its edge. Quicker, cheaper programs offer attractive career route alternatives while the more prestigious master's is trumping it, making it a mere steppingstone.

Studies show that people with four-year college degrees earn more money than those without over their lifetime, that they are more likely to find jobs and, once employed, are almost twice as likely to be selected for on-the-job training.

This has prompted a stampede through college and university gates.

But studies are like photographs: They record the past. They say nothing about the clear and present danger that the bachelor's degree is losing value.

"As more and more people get a bachelor's degree, it becomes more commonplace," says Linda Serra Hagedorn, immediate past president of the Association for the Study of Higher Education and associate dean and professor at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa.

And, she adds, "not all bachelor's are equal." In many communities around the country, the bachelor's is not enough to make you stand out. " 'A bachelor's in what?' that's the question," Professor Hagedorn says.

"Further blurring the line of what a bachelor's degree is and what it really means," she notes, are new attitudes and options in postsecondary education, such as the explosion of online and for-profit institutions, the proliferation of graduate degrees, and a much publicized malaise over the quality and value of undergraduate education.

Bartenders with bachelor's degrees

"A bachelor's is what a high school diploma used to be," suggests Caryn McTighe Musil of the American Association of Colleges and Universities.

After World War II and through decades of postwar economic growth, college attendance morphed from an exception into the desired norm. In 1950, some 34 percent of adults had completed high school; today, more than 30 percent have completed a bachelor's. In 2009, colleges and universities handed out more than 1.6 million bachelor's degrees, a number the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) expects will grow to almost 2 million by 2020.

Spiraling degree inflation is what Richard Vedder, professor of economics at Ohio University and adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, calls it. The danger he sees is that growing numbers of Americans will be unnecessarily saddled with hefty student loans.

"The fact is that it is not a sure shot you're going to get the high-paying job," Professor Vedder says, and the notion that the earnings differential "is continuing to grow and expand is somewhat suspect."

Bachelor's degree-holders may well earn 66 percent more than high school graduates and 35 percent more than people with two-year degrees, he says. But for every bachelor's degree-holder earning more than $54,000 a year, he notes, there is a mail carrier, taxi driver, bartender, parking attendant or other worker with a bachelor's earning less. Indeed, almost 16 percent of the country's bartenders and almost 14 percent of its parking lot attendants have a bachelor's or higher.

Vedder predicts more and more college-­educated people will be in jobs that do not require a four-year degree.

Michael Hughes and Amanda Kusler met in just such a job, working as servers in a restaurant in Ann Arbor, Mich. It was 2007, and both had graduated from high school three years earlier.

Ms. Kusler was by then a junior at the University of Michigan, on track to finish up in four years.

For Mr. Hughes, on the other hand, the journey through college had been tortuous – and, in many ways more typical. He had started off at community college to build his grades, then transferred to Pennsylvania State University in State College on a water-polo scholarship. But when some of his credits failed to transfer, he lost the scholarship and had to transfer back to community college in Michigan.

By the time he met Kusler, Hughes says, "I didn't know what I was doing" and had "stopped out" – a popular term for students putting education on hold as they evaluate their future or get their finances in order.

The restaurant job paid well – in fact, Hughes says, "the servers made more money than the managers" though the managers did get benefits. And, he noticed, "everyone who was a manager had a college degree."

This did not escape his girlfriend's notice, either: "You do hear of people who get a great job out of high school and work their way up," she says, "but then when they lose it, they have nothing to fall back on."

Soon after they started dating, Kusler encouraged Hughes to reenroll and pursue a degree. "Especially nowadays," she believes, "it's a norm to get your BA – doesn't matter what it's in."

That was certainly the case for decades, says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, but not anymore.

"It used to be that just getting the bachelor's made you employable," Mr. Carnevale says. But the research increasingly shows "that the BA in and of itself is not what's valuable. Now, it more and more depends on what the degree is in."

Educational programs now "differ so markedly," he adds, "that there are degrees that take less time than a [bachelor's of science] and are more valuable."

There is general agreement that postsecondary education is necessary in our increasingly global and information-based economy. The question is: What kind of postsecondary education will best serve each individual, given the needs of the labor market?

Already, education has become "much more textured, and more and more related to occupations," says Carnevale.

This means that alternatives to the bachelor's are mushrooming. Options range from expensive for-profit institutions to free, online nondegree classes taught by Ivy League faculty through Udacity and Coursera and company-specific training classes such as Novell computer technology certifications or Microsoft certifications in cloud technology.

"Even at the university level," Hagedorn adds, "we've seen a growth of certificates, a shorter-term set of courses that leads to more specific training."

Some two-year institutions like East Mississippi Community College in Columbus and Macomb Community College in Detroit are partnering with local employers to run specialized training programs in such areas as avionics or automotive technology.

But just as some manufacturing sectors are reporting worrisome shortages of qualified workers, cuts in state funding are forcing many community colleges to replace occupational classes with cheaper-to-run liberal arts courses.

Where are the welders?

Ojay McKendry is uniquely positioned to see the disconnect between legions of inexperienced college graduates expecting managerial jobs and employers unable to find the highly skilled workers they need. He runs a medium-sized employment agency in Bakersfield, Calif., where one of the largest employers is the oil industry.

"It is hard to find a good welder," he says, "and there are not necessarily a lot of training programs for this." In other fields, too, he sees positions "that require some kind of technical training" go unfilled because "the training may not be readily available or is very expensive."

A recent Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development analysis of global skills strategy calls attention to this shortage in the United States and to the lingering social stigma associated with vocational training programs. If the US heeds this warning, this could change. Already, some certificate programs are "held in a little bit higher esteem" as full degrees are devalued, says Hagedorn.

The key word here is "some."

Take Winston Mitchell's case, for example. On a recent morning, he manned a jobs fair recruiting booth at Brooklyn's Kingsborough Community College. Offering unpaid internships for a TV news magazine that airs on PBS and local access channels in the New York City area, Mr. Mitchell says he pays little attention to transcripts and grades.

Initiative, talent, and the willingness to work don't necessarily correlate with high test scores, he says.

"But certificates?" Mitchell's eyes widen. "I would scrutinize a certificate."

Mitchell is equally emphatic about the degree hierarchy: "An associate's is not worth anything," he says. "A bachelor's is better. And a master's better still."

Leapfrogging the bachelor's

For some like Kusler, this was a given. Her aim all along was to work with children as a physical therapist, and there was no way to do that without a graduate degree.

But even in occupations that do not formally require postgraduate education, some employers have begun using graduate degrees as a filter.

"There's been some slight shifting to hiring more advanced degrees, particularly the master's – not MBAs, but generic master's," says Edwin Koc, director of strategic and foundation research at the National Association of Colleges and Employers. He notes that a number of his organization's members are now hiring people with a master's in engineering for jobs he'd assumed require only a bachelor's.

Mr. Koc speculates that "many individuals who pursue a master's degree do not pursue it directly out of college. They tend to work first," and that makes them more attractive.

There is, however, also the undeniable fact that the supply of Americans with master's degrees is exploding. There are 50 percent more people in the job market today with a master's than there were in 2000. And the rate of growth is accelerating: When the economy is in turmoil and jobs are scarce, graduate enrollments typically rise.

This, in turn, fuels the feeling that Green, the accelerated master's student at Emory University, has: "The master's seems like what you have to have to get where you want to go."

With few good jobs immediately available and cuts in such postgrad havens as the Peace Corps, many are postponing these experiences to get their master's sooner rather than later.

This explains why increasing numbers of schools let qualifying seniors take graduate courses that count toward the completion of their bachelor's while also earning graduate school credits.

Typically, this means that instead of spending four years as an undergraduate plus two years in graduate school, students earn both a bachelor's and master's in five, thus giving the bachelor's a run for its money.

Neither the NCES nor college associations tally the number of such programs; but Duane Larick, dean of North Carolina State University's Graduate School in Raleigh, looked into this when preparing a presentation about his own institution's program. He concludes that most institutions "have come up with some mechanism for a high-achieving undergraduate to pursue [an accelerated] master's."

C's the degree – credential inflation

Ironically, the push for master's degrees underscores the increasing need for the bachelor's while highlighting its weaknesses.

In theory, four years of undergraduate study nurtures critical thinking and the ability to adapt to a rapidly changing workplace.

But US college education has come under heavy criticism of late, and a bachelor's degree no longer guarantees that someone has actually acquired these crucial skills.

"There is this credential race going on," says Richard Arum, coauthor of "Academically Adrift," "where there is less attention to the substance of the education and more to the credentials that are useful as signals in the labor market."

From some college hallways comes a popular mantra that sounds like "Seize the degree," a "carpe diem" call to educational opportunity. But it is really "C's the degree," says Hughes, who has had multiple postsecondary false starts and is amused that anyone misunderstands.

There is much talk among his classmates about grading curves and easy classes. Like Hughes with his lengthy degree odyssey, many have transferred one or more times, juggled work and classes, "stopped out," then re-enrolled. For them, there has been no idyllic campus life discussing heady ideas on the green: The prevailing attitude has become "just get the piece of paper."

More than eight years after his first freshman class, Hughes is now on track to graduate from New York City's Baruch College in December. And there is no doubt that the degree will place him in a new demographic. Even though more than half of this year's college graduates have received no job offers, according to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, and even though a report from the Project on Student Debt bemoaned that the class of 2010 faced record unemployment, college graduates are still faring much better than those without a bachelor's.

"If nothing else," says Mr. McKendry, the California recruiter, "a bachelor's shows that somebody has the mental capability and the initiative to complete something" that less than 30 percent of the US population has achieved. But McKendry and his counterpart in a Snellings Staffing Services in New Jersey, Koleen Singerline, have independently lost their faith in the bachelor's as a predictor, in and of itself, of workplace success.

They point primarily to what they judge as a lack of work ethic and an attitude of entitlement in the new generation. Still, they are forced by employers to use college degrees as a benchmark.

"There are really good people with a wonderful track record," says Ms. Singerline, "but I often cannot get a client to consider them because the company policy is that to become a manager you must have a degree."

This is where cultural factors come to bear. "People would feel that it's unfair to report to somebody who has a lesser degree of education than they have," Hagedorn explains. "That usually leads to an uncomfortable situation in the company."

A similar observation could be made for relationships. The industrious young Kusler, who completed a three-year doctorate in physical therapy at Columbia University in New York, now has her "dream job" as a pediatric physical therapist at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

She has been both cheerleader and task-master for her boyfriend, Hughes. She has made it very clear, says Hughes, that if he doesn't get his degree, he risks losing her.

The crux is that "education is still respected," as Hagedorn points out, and there will probably always exist an economic and social divide between those who have it and those who don't.

RELATED: Are you helicopter parenting a future grad? Take our quiz!

But workplace and educational institutions are evolving, and attitudes toward the bachelor's are also showing signs of change. Some employers are more interested in experience, skills, and attitude than they are in degrees; others require higher levels of education from the start.

Then, as Jack Hollister, president of the Employers' Association serving Northwest Ohio and Southeast Michigan, reports, there are employers who only "look at bachelor's from certain schools and certain areas of study and require a minimum GPA."

In other words, they no longer take a bachelor's at face value.

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