Degree inflation out of control

We’ve all heard about the housing bubble, but how about the education bubble?
Mar 4, 2013


We’ve all felt economic inflation as prices go up on lower-value items (four chicken nuggets in an order instead of five anyone?), but have you felt the effects of degree inflation?

You likely have.

These days, it’s tough to find great jobs without a bachelor’s degree. And that’s where both the education bubble and degree inflation come into play.

It used to be that a person who was smart and worked hard could get a decent-paying entry-level position and maneuver their way up through the ranks. Many factory supervisors, for instance, used to be people who graduated from high school and started as machinists or crane operators. They worked hard, mastered their skills, and ultimately were rewarded for their efforts by being promoted to foreman or supervisor.

Now it’s hard to find a great factory management position without a bachelor’s or master’s degree in engineering. So what if you’ve learned every inch of the factory line and product? So what if you have more real-world experience? So what if that new grad has never worked a machine line? They’ve got that crisp, clean piece of paper — and now they’re your boss.

As colleges and universities churn out hundreds of thousands of shiny new graduates into a recovering economy, employers in nearly every field have found that they can hire people with their MBAs to be clerks, or people with bachelor’s or master’s degrees to be assistant managers at the local pizza store. People without college degrees are finding it tougher to get the jobs previously open to them. Now they’re out-maneuvered by debt-laden college grads who take that $10 an hour job after financing a $100,000 post-secondary education.

"Degree inflation," as economists call the phenomenon, is infiltrating the job market for many positions that haven't previously required a college diploma. Naturally, a recent New York Times article espouses, the drive toward higher credentials for these jobs pushes workers with no more than a high school diploma ever further down the job market food chain.

So, it’s hard to say no when a new legislative proposal (House Bill 4148) is put to legislators in Lansing that would allow more community college bachelor’s degrees. If approved, community colleges could grant four-year bachelor’s degrees in nursing, ski area management, wastewater treatment technology and manufacturing technology, among others. This follows legislation in 2012 that allowed such four-year degrees in areas such as cement technology or maritime technology.

It seems like a great thing to allow community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees, right? To increase access to post-secondary education for more people, right? While it’s difficult to urge restraint in this area, there must be a voice of reason injected.


One has to wonder why someone who pours and molds cement has to have a college degree in cement technology. And why should nursing be expanded from two- to four-year degrees? What’s wrong with the two-year degree?

The same goes for ski area management or culinary arts or manufacturing technology. Isn’t real-world experience through technical, hands-on training of more value? Why flood the wastewater technology market with people who have expensive four-year degrees?

There are many well-paying trades that haven’t traditionally required college degrees — electricians, plumbers, painters and mechanics. What’s next for them? Require master’s degrees to fix your toilet or change the oil on your car?

Enough is enough.

There has to be a line drawn and restraint shown. Legislators should not further open the expensive education floodgates to require advanced degrees for trades that are best learned on the job, not in classrooms.

Give hard workers a chance to advance through the ranks on merit and hard work, not only on their pedigrees. And, for goodness sake, recognize that some of the most revolutionary and successful innovators of our time came from humble roots and never earned college degrees —Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs are just a few.

But think about your parents or grandparents, who didn’t need calculators or fancy degrees to get the job done. They also likely did it better than the current generation of kids graduating college with student loans in the five or six digits.

Our Views reflects the majority opinion of the members of the Grand Haven Tribune editorial board: Kevin Hook, Cheryl Welch, Matt DeYoung and Fred VandenBrand. What do you think? E-mail us a letter to the editor to or log-in to our website and leave a comment below.



Brovo good article and so true


Where do you do when the technology advances faster than the experience is accrued?
Your example of pouring concrete not requiring any specific knowledge other than that learned while getting dirty, is perfect! Look at our roads! If better technology and control of the concrete mixing process is applied then perhaps our highways would not be 75% concrete patch from joint replacement.
Electricians never need any particular knowledge other than how to "pull wire"! No, not in this time of alternative energy and advancing lighting systems.
The education is not just specific knowledge being given to the student, it is also a process of learning how to think. How can I apply new things, not just keep doing what I learned by doing the same thing over and over. If you don't understand the underlying process you can't figure out what really went wrong when things break.
Knowledge is always a good thing, stifling that learning is holding people back.
Our economy is always advancing, if you don't accpt that change you will be left behind. If you don't pursue the knowledge, you may be able to do the job today, but what about tomorrow?
Change is inevitable!
Just because someone graduates with large debt is not a detriment to doing a job, it is merely a reflection on the high cost of education today. There are alternatives.


Thanks for the demeaning response. Making an assumption that I am in education and then making an inference that becasue I may be in education I don't understand the outside world is unreasonable.
I am actually in the automotive parts supply industry, about as far from "education" as you can get. I see examples everyday where the people that are actually making the parts have no idea what they are used for. This leads to issues where defects either cause huge reactions to try and correct or no reaction at all resultling in large problems at the customer causing huge expenses for the supplier.
I see examples everyday where people try and program robots or PLC's that learned by "experience"! They can do what it takes to maybe keep things running but can't go beyond! I asked for a stacking program in an off load robot, and the "technician" told me it could not do it. I "know" it can!
Isn't it the American way to try and better yourself? Then why would you be grudge someone taking a job "to get by" and then moving on when something better comes up? That is another demeaning expectation of the employer. I would never hold someone back from reaching as high as they can. There is always someone else that would like the position that is being vacated.
What I see happening is people taking on excessive student loans and not exploring all the alternatives to help pay for that education. I financed mine by serving in the US Army. I also gained some valuable "experience" by spending several years in Europe to get a wider view of the world instead of thinking of this country and especially this little corner of West Michigan as "The World"!
This country is falling farther behind the rest of the world as far as education and expertise. We are graduating lawyers but few engineers. You can imagine its the other way around in China. That's where the battle is and will be, to maintain an economic strength through expertise not labor. We would lose that struggle based on the labor side of things.
Its a strange thing in this country where we seem to demean those that are educated. We celebrate the crass!


I am not demeaning education or educators. I demean the fact that people believe that education is the only way to go and that you will be seen as less if you don't have it. I could care less what your occupation is. You are assuming that everyone wants to be progressive. In the auto industry, you should see everyday that there are many people who are fine with the jobs they have. They are often the backbone of the company and should be paid for what they do. To your exact opposite point, I know a lot of people that hold high education, but they don't have a clue what they are doing. They are happy doing their 7:00 to 3:30. They want to work to live, not the opposite. The issue is the fact that people are always looking at how to finance without questioning the cost. Where are the people that question the cost of education? It's ridiculous and as the article points out, it's leading to big issues.


Excellent letters, GH55


You really should be progressive, or you will be left behind. If you don't figure out how to make things better and less expensively, everyday, your job will go to someone else. That is the way of one of the largest sectors of our economy. The customer demands that and acutally will just cut the percentage from their invoices if you don't figure out how to remove it.
As far as you generalizations go, there are always the stories, one way or the other. Along with, "Some people are saying....." on our favorite news network.
Yes, I question the cost of education, I have four going through college, two of which are currently pursuing advanced degrees. So I am well aware of the costs and the value of education.
Perhaps, if there was a more progressive attitude in this country, instead of the "Burn, baby, burn" and "Drill, baby , drill", so we didn't have to run around the world starting wars to get more oil, our massive defense budget could be reduced to a more reasonable level and education could benefit.
Education is not an expense or a give away. It is an investment that gives huge returns. Otherwise, our country will be the one providing the labor to the rest of the world, since we won't have the educated people that can drive the innovation!
Unfortunately, education is one of the first things to get axed when it comes to cost cutting!
Yes, there are those that are content with their lives, and then there are those that seek to improve things not just monetarily but for those around them.
This opinion article of the Tribune's staff, picked as an example of education inflation, probably three of the most intelligent people to live in this time. They were ones that drove the innovation through their own shear will! To use them as an example of how large parts of the rest of society could get along without a college education is ludicrous.


All I'm saying is that you don't need to push your values on everyone. Some people can't or won't go to college. So what? The more I'm reading your replies, I can see your one sided views. That's fine, but you also need to let people have a choice for higher education. The bottom line is that some jobs don't need it as this article is pointing out. Some jobs do and they will hire that way. The cost of education is driving everything up. Don't you ever get curious on why every type of Bacehlor's degree out there, no matter what the subject is, is magically 120 credits? The US has the highest cost of education and obviously a system that's broken. Fix it, and maybe people will start listening.


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