Postsecondary education, "job jugglers", and economic growth

UV Letter - Volume 1, #1

An article from the Sunday New York Times at the end of June provides support for the proposition that the crisis in higher education is just as acute as the more publicized crisis in K-12, and may prove to be more pertinent to the question being asked throughout America: whither economic growth?

The article concerns so-called "job jugglers" - 20-somethings and increasingly 30-somethings with multiple part-time jobs in order to make ends meet. These young people struggle to pay the rent or afford health insurance coverage without help from mom and dad. And they have one more thing in common: they have bachelor's degrees (and the concomitant student loan debt -- $20,000 each, on average).

They also have few prospects for career advancement. Even those who find full-time positions may be surprised by their initial pay relative to the cost of tuition. The Times article cites a new study from the Heldrich Center: The median starting salary for those who graduated from four-year degree programs in 2009 and 2010 was $27,000, down from $30,000 for those who graduated in 2006 to 2008, before the recession. As the Times notes, try living on $27,000 in New York or Chicago...

Equally troubling, more college graduates are working in second jobs that don't require college degrees, part of a phenomenon called "mal-employment." In short, many new college grads find themselves working as Starbucks barristas, sales clerks, telemarketers or bartenders - all jobs they could have gotten without spending six figures for four years of college tuition. The Times article notes that last year, 1.9 million college graduates were mal-employed and had multiple jobs, up 17 percent from 2007, according to federal data. Almost half of all college graduates have a job that doesn't require a bachelor's degree.

It's statistics like this that prompted noted Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel (PayPal, Facebook) to label U.S. higher education "a bubble in the classic sense," and award 24 talented undergraduates $100,000 "Thiel Fellowships" to drop out of college and pursue their entrepreneurial ideas.

Thiel and others argue that although every study ever conducted of the value of a college degree demonstrates a very compelling lifetime ROI, that correlation may not hold for certain groups (e.g., very high achievers), and may not continue to hold true following the financial crisis.

The notion that the importance of higher education should be de-emphasized runs directly counter to what the competition is doing. In China, the number of students enrolled in higher education more than quintupled over the last decade. India has established thousands of new colleges in recent years.

It also is refuted by researchers Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose who demonstrate in a new study that demand for skilled workers grew at an annual rate of 3.6% from 1990 - 2005, while the rate of increase in the number of college-educated workers grew at 2% from 1990-2000, and then slowed to 1% from 2001 on.

So in the absence of Thiel Fellowships for all, when President Obama announced as his top priority in higher education that America regain its place as #1 in degree completion (we're now #14 and headed in the wrong direction), he was absolutely right. But he didn't go far enough. America has a surplus of institutions and programs churning out millions of graduates not much better equipped for work in the 21st century than they were when they entered. And we have a severe deficit of programs directly connected to jobs and careers in growth industries.

Making those connections clearer and stronger is the key to solving the plight of the "job jugglers" and the question of economic growth.

In future letters, we'll discuss what role the government, accreditors, colleges and universities, and the private sector will play in addressing these issues in the coming years.

University Ventures Fund invests in universities and service companies in areas where rising demand and shrinking supply create rapidly growing market and student service opportunities.