What 17 Million Americans Got from a College Degree

Over 317,000 waiters and waitresses have college degrees (over 8,000 of them have doctoral or professional degrees), along with over 80,000 bartenders, and over 18,000 parking lot attendants. All told, some 17,000,000 Americans with college degrees are doing jobs that the BLS says require less than the skill levels associated with a bachelor’s degree.

That's from this piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, via Jon Bischke on Twitter. More:

Putting issues of student abilities aside, the growing disconnect between labor market realities and the propaganda of higher-education apologists is causing more and more people to graduate and take menial jobs or no job at all. This is even true at the doctoral and professional level—there are 5,057 janitors in the U.S. with Ph.D.’s, other doctorates, or professional degrees.

For hundreds of thousands of Americans, spending four years and untold amounts of money (and debt?) gets you a job as a waiter, parking lot attendant, or janitor. Yet everyone from Barack Obama to Bill Gates keep pushing a college education as the way to secure one's economic future. That is a view that should be heavily qualified.

Here's the complete chart: 


63 comments on “What 17 Million Americans Got from a College Degree
  • Alan Blinder already warned that the right kind of education is essential. For example it will be difficult finding a job if the services, for which one is qualified can be offshored easily to India.
    Blinder suggests to invest in educational programs which qualify the students to deliver personalized services that can’t be offshored that easily.

  • Australia’s prime minister is echoing Obama’s call for more degrees. I suspect that similar countries will follow suit.

    Questioning the relationship between more degrees and a higher standard of living has been an interesting topic to discuss in my entrepreneurship class here.

  • I agree society is overeducated (or overvalues education, at least).

    I disagree that the point of a degree is to get a job. I’m in a PhD program and I view it as entertainment. As a graduate student, I get paid less than a typical job, but I live in a super stimulating environment.

    • No Ted you are wrong man.
      I just graduated six months or so ago from a masters program. I went as a undergrad focusing on archaeology. I went to work after doing what in archaeology is considered a internship, in CRM (which for most people who make a LIVING in archaeology do) because everyone (almost everyone) needs to make a LIVING.
      If I did not go to college (at least on paper) I would not have been able to get the jobs that I did. Those jobs specifically required (amongst some other things) BA in archaeology. That means people like me are going to college specifically to get a certain job.
      To say that the point of a degree is not necessarily to get a job, means then well if someone want’s to be a doctor then, I guess it’s ok they just learned about the human body living at home and when they felt ready they would just hop (hop hop) over to whatever hospital they wanted to work at and say, ok so I learned this and this, can I get a job as a doctor?
      NOOOO would be the response and he would be laughed at.
      Furthermore though I think there are a-lot of jobs in this economy that do not require a average capable person to spend four years at a university to learn material to do that specific job (such as mover, or janitor, waiter, or selling ice cream to hungry customers), I see more and more jobs that now say college degree required (such as for security guards)? If you want to be a security guard, that stuff you can basically work on the job in my opinion over a four week period. That’s considered a high school kinda job, since basically they want a body to do basic functions like taking name-tags, jotting down incidents, monitoring a location, having to exert authority and using a weapon when needed to protect property. None of those skills are college related skills. Those are skills that people in the past would call having a normal thinking brain, and street smarts.
      Again not college related at all, and I doubt many people go to college thinking I want to be a security guard for life, yet now I see job ads with that requirement listed.
      Thus the point is our society is turning to one that seems to assume that you can’t think at all if you DO NOT have a college degree. Thus the importance of going to college has now become a requirement.
      Yet back to the point here,
      So I was in my field for awhile, and I got the impression from people I worked with and my bosses and just the general layout of the hierarchy at these firms, that I needed a advance degree in order to maybe get a better job in the field (archaeology).
      Actually when you find out that all the project managers (have to have a master’s in archaeology), that is basically telling the lower level person, well without the degree I have no chance of ever getting that job. Thus the master’s has now become a REQUIREMENT for the job. Thus the point of the master’s program has now become trying to get that individual that job, since the direct companies that bolster these programs are REQUIRING IT.
      I graduated, and now I can’t seem to even find the same job I had before. Yeah I know the economy turned bad while I was in school, but that’s a moot point, because during this time schools basically promoted that getting these degrees would lead to better jobs in your field.
      Anyway major point here is that, to expect students who enter a subject area and studies it for four years or more, and then graduates and finds out well there aren’t any positions in that field, to not feel cheated, while that student spent too precious things is ridiculous.
      First thing is time. He or she spent part of their lifetime studying a subject with the premise in mind they were going to start their profession (aka lifetime career or job).
      Second thing is money. I put time first because you can’t get time back, lost money you can make back with time.
      Thus they lost time and money, which is not okay for these students in my opinion, they could have used that time focusing it on other things, to start their professions.

      Now it would still not be ok, for these students if they couldn’t get a job after graduating in their field, because of the time spent, but it would be better if students were authorized to get their money back from the college at least. Thus to place that investment of money they initially put in ABC program into something else.
      No the point now is college is becoming a requirement I think for a-lot of jobs, thus the point of college (once upon a time in a better economic climate that had plenty of work, mission could get away with just learning for learnings sake as your saying Ted), but with how society has changed, college’s mission has to change to becoming a job service for specific jobs that require a college degree.
      To blame this on students who in my opinion are mostly young people starting out, who for the most part have no power in any of these changes or hiring decisions to hire themselves, then it is these professors and other college professional working people’s job to make sure they are preparing these students to enter the job force as quickly as possible after graduating.

      • Lastly, though here is why there is really all this vitriol towards college today, because society has failed.

        There isn’t enough work for everyone alive. Secondly there isn’t enough work for everyone with the proper credentials to do such and such jobs.

        Part of this problem is that anyone is allowed to have children which means in truth (those young people are competing with more and more people) but lets not even say young ok, what about older people who want to do something else with their lives, they are competing with these people as well. Now why do we compete at all, because society as failed, in a ideal world or at least a better working one, there would be enough work for everyone alive who is willing to work. Yet of course we don’t live in that fantasy world. Anyway people are able to have kids regardless if that person can take care of the kid(s). Part of society failure problem is also technology that has made certain positions redundant. Another part of it is, people are living longer than in the past and healthier and are not retiring Lastly part of it is people are willing and are allowed to do a particular job that for years had a certain compensation (aka money package to go along with the responsibilities or skill sets) for less pay in other parts of the world.

        Possible solutions

        1. God forbid but wars do help economies. World War 3 would be disastrous for a period of time, but the survivors would probably be better off (like when you reduce a population of animals, and the ones still around have more food and better living conditions, as a bulk of their competitors are gone).
        Ok nasty scenario, but the truth is still truth.
        2. Plagues etc. No destruction to the infrastructure on the planet, but again a-lot less people, a-lot less competitors.

        Ok again not promoting this but I feel our society could be in the future at a bad breaking point that could compel someone to try this out.

        I don’t want that to happen

        More hopeful solution. Increase space funding. Start building colonies on the moon so underemployed people unemployed people who feel they did a-lot of work in the school system to do something meaningful with their lives can move out there.

        No longer competing on earth, can start new lives out on these colonies.

        Again this all comes down to competition, and not enough money being allocated to companies for them to be willing in my opinion to hire new prospects.

        Yet with the hopeful solution I propose maybe there would be room for everyone to build productive lives.

  • Traditional education is good for that purpose: traditional degrees. I don’t want a self-taught doctor treating me, or a self-taught architect building bridges, but as our society values more and more ideas and uniqueness, traditional education fails more and more in bringing that. The problem is, for those that are not curious enough and prefer to be told what to do, traditional education is still their best bet even if they are actually taking a bigger risk by pursuing it.

  • 1. What proportion of these people are happy with their jobs and happy to have undertaken higher education? Perhaps more than you think.

    2. Is the purpose of their degree always to get a better job? I’d love to get a degree in history, but I wouldn’t consider myself a failure if I earned a living in some unrelated way afterwards.

    3. Perhaps people with jobs with lower responsibility use their time and lack of stress in other ways — perhaps furthering their education, research, craft or something else.

    Summary: the analysis presented feels shallow.

  • While I don’t disagree with the fact that many people are underemployed, I wonder if the studies considered factors such as *where* people earned those degrees…For example, how many of those PhD-holding janitors earned their degrees in another country and later immigrated to the US?

  • The comments on that article seem to show a broad spread of reactions regarding the less quantifiable benefits of education, but I think everyone would agree it would be more humanistic to give students greater access to these kinds of stats when choosing their majors.

    Make it a priority to give students the transparent information they need to build a positive life path that suits them.

  • A great post. One has to wonder whether this falls more on the student or the college. This line from the Chronicle of Ed is important: “They love the socialization dimensions of schooling—particularly in this age of the country-clubization of American universities.” I was amazed when I took my kids on college visits how much each institution stressed the overriding importance of social life. It was usually one of the first thing mentioned, and is was talked about often. The study abroad program was another “perk” that was/is pushed hard. Country-clubization indeed. There is a rush to go D-1 in basketball across the country to market schools and promote social life. Don’t want to sound like the grumpy old man here, but our colleges send out the wrong message early and often, which may be contributing to the lack of skills and focus many students have after four (often five, six) years.

  • Ben—-I hear this argument all the time, but I keep on asking, what is the alternative? If you are going to present this as an argument against pursuing advanced degrees or even a bachelors, then what should future students do to put themselves in a better position for career success?

  • The alternatives: In high school, teach people how to be autodidacts: find mentors, the info they need on a just-in-time basis, the value of groups such as professional association meetings, online lists and discussion groups, etc.

    And as Brandon Alter wrote above, colleges must be transparent in the time-cost benefit of what they offer. Just as tire manufacturers are required to mold into each tire’s sidewall its treadlife, temperature, and traction ratings, colleges should be required to conspicuously post on their website, their four-, five- and six year graduation rates, their average value-added in reading, writing, math, and thinking skills, percent of graduates, by major, who are professionally employed within one year of graduation, and the NET cost of the bachelor’s degree, disaggregated by major (including all years’ costs minus CASH financial aid.) Separate figures should be provided for varying family income/assets

  • PhDs in what, exactly? I doubt EE, mathematics, biochemistry or finance. Some other fields of study, not so much….

  • This blog doesn’t mention what percentage of these people are doing that job full-time, and I doubt it’s very high. The point of a higher education is not necessarily to make as much money as possible; it’s to be able to pursue a career that interests and challenges you. I’m getting my master’s with the full knowledge that I’m going into a low-paying field and might have to wait tables on the side for another decade or two, but it’s worth it to me to have a career that I find fulfilling.

  • I am sorry, but I just met a person who said s/he has a BA and 1yr of grad school, and the person’s intellect is that of a kindergartner. It doesn’t say much for the institutions that accepted and handed her/him a college diploma.

  • The unsuitability of higher education programs for employment I suspect is because the degrees are awarded after testing the students’ mastery over the contents of the course that are structured without reckoning the real market need. This also creates another big problem when graduate students take up jobs unrelated to their degrees (not all are janitors though) that engenders a global devastation like what happened when Engineers flocked en masse to Wall Street instead of R&D [in their respective fields of Mechanical /Electronics/Electrical/Civil/Chemical etc.]

  • I heard a statistic a few months ago mentioning in the current economic environment that people with an undergraduate degree or higher have an unemployment rate of around 4%.

    Just something else to ponder.

  • Shame on whoever put the bold emphasis on

    “there are 5,057 janitors in the U.S. with Ph.D.’s”

    while leaving without bold

    “…other doctorates, or professional degrees.”

    This is incredibly misleading. There could be NO PhDs as janitors, but all 5,057 janitors hold professional degrees instead. Note that there is pretty much a professional degree in everything: clergy, artist, librarian, audiologist, acupuncturist, naprapathy, homeopathy, et al.

    Comparing a certificate in holistic medicine to a PhD is absurd. This sort of yellow journalism may just deter people from pursuing legitimate life paths and professions. The article could say just as truthfully

    “5,057 Presidents of the United States, PhDs or professional degree awardees are janitors.”

  • That’s what I was going to ask. Anecdotally, you hear of highly educated immigrants who are unable to secure appropriate positions because of language issues, credentialing difficulties, disconnectedness to social networks, and/or lack of understanding of the process by which jobs are secured in this country. Hence, the engineer driving a taxi, the lawyer busing tables, and the doctor cleaning bathrooms.

  • … but college was so much fun! : )

    Seriously though, there are more benefits to college than viewing it as a guaranteed ticket to a job post-graduation. Some other benefits I got from college:

    – exposed to multitude of people with different backgrounds, religions, beliefs and ideas.
    – was able to explore in an academic environment exactly what I was passionate about and not so passionate about.
    – took classes and learned about subjects I otherwise probably never would have taken the initiative to learn
    – made friends that I count amongst my inner circle.

    Could I have done these things without spending six figures? Of course, and I continue to do so with the books I read and the people I meet. While employment is certainly an important statistic to look at, and while changes in our educational system up through college are certainly necessary, I think it’s important to view the experience of college from a holistic point of view and not strictly statistically.

  • I think that there are 5,057 janitors with a sense of humor. These data come from self-reported surveys, right?

    Don’t believe everything people tell you 🙂

    That said, I TOTALLY agree that some people have credentials they do not deserve. The labor market is much more vigorous at matching than the education market in giving out papers…

  • It’d be interesting to see the reverse. Look at jobs that typically require degrees and determine how many don’t have degrees in that field.

  • The best solutions to unemployment include shortening the work week, increasing overtime pay, and increasing vacation time. There is plenty of work and money to go around, but not enough will by the corporate multinationals to share the people’s wealth with the people.

    Globalization was originally an idea embracing the ability for people and ideas to move around. Now it has become a weapon to move capital and destroy currencies to attack the working class.

    Education will be the scapegoat as long as there are no jobs and individuals have to assume all the risks of higher education.

  • wow dave u seem pretty shallow, that is not meant as an attack on you but a call for you to step out of your box, this “blog” is simply pointing some major issues that our soceity is facing with higher education,

  • So using 17 Million Degrees, then only 14.5% of degree holders are working in one of the profession listed on the chart. That doesn’t seem bad; for every 20 people with degrees only 3 of them don’t get a job that requires a college degree, including those that chose to and were not forced to. Also, the 17M degrees seems a low estimate of how many college graduates there are in the USA

  • regardless of the degree the people are given so many with these degrees do not coop or are given the opportunity to work in their industry during their time at school. There are some great programs that allow them to go out and find something to work in and should be something the colleges push for instead of just handing out the degrees.

  • Leaders in government and higher education have watched this problem for years without taking action – neither rethinking the public good of higher education or telling the truth revealed in the outcome studies they carefully watch and try to control that document the failures of higher education to deliver on the promises made to prospective students. It is a problem in that they have knowingly promoted false hopes about the relationships between higher education degrees and lifetime income, and have allowed student / family debt to pay for the building of the institutions that are quickly becoming obsolete.

  • As I commented on the Chronicle site, any normally-distributed characteristic of a group of people will have a tail that falls below some arbitrary threshold.

    The BLS data that the author did NOT quote: PhDs earned more than twice as much, on average, as high school graduates in 2009, and 50% more than BS/BA holders. Masters graduates earned about twice as much as HS grads and 20% more than BS/BA grads.

    Unemployment for PhDs and Masters students is holding at under 4%, compared to 10% for HS grads.


  • Our society is… overeducated? An absurdly high percentage of Americans don’t even graduate high school, much less college. And isn’t part of what contributes to wealth inequity in the United States the fact that there is a lot of demand for college-educated people in many professions than there is supply?

    Frankly, I don’t think it’s a bad thing if more of our society goes to college, or at least gets more education. That’s not to say that ranking up a ton of debt in the process is a good thing– people should make their own choices about what’s good for them. I see college degrees as more than just a ticket to whatever wage in the future.

    Also, I was very surprised to find out my high school janitor had a college degree in polysci. I was actually very happy to find this out. People around the school stereotype him as uneducated and simple-minded, but he’s actually in the process of setting up a charity organization that works directly with orphanages in his home country. I see a sort of value in the fact that someone with higher education is willing to take a job that’s viewed as ‘lower’ and be happy and make a difference in the world. What if more of our citizens were that informed?

    That said, I really do not know anything.

  • This information is only shocking to those who assume a degree (any degree) automatically ends up with a full-time cushy corporate job. Perhaps some of those workers are the ones who assumed a degree in anthropology would have them doing more than working in a call center, or a theater degree would make them famous rather than a server at a restaurant. Additionally, many students who majored in Hotel and Tourism Management interview to become front desk clerks (and later hopefully move up). There aren’t THAT many advertising jobs, so some communication majors are bound to end up as secretaries as well, etc. (On and on – some majors do not equate to a solid high-paying job after college and people must take what they can get, especially when studying history, english, and the like)

    There is no also distinction from a prestigious college from a community one – where they could have barely graduated. However, even considering that, the point is still valid: Just getting a degree does not ensure success. (Maybe people ought to think about that when looking at University of Phoenix, etc.) However, the statistics here do not change the fact that lifetime income of most college graduates are much higher than those who simply finish high school. It just should give emphasis to choosing the right major for your interests and career potential, instead of simply a 4-5 year party like some go through. Heck, I have a bachelors of science and was a heavy truck driver over the summer to make ends meet in this economic shake-up. But now back for a second degree in engineering because it is my true calling and something I have passion for, in addition to stability of employment and great salary. Once you know what you want to do and have the foundation of education and experience to do so, then you ought not to be one of these numbers.

  • I understand your statement but somehow it doesnt feel right to me.
    I don’t really see any reason, other than cultural pressure, explaining why so many people are pursuing higher education, I mean people who do not want or need it. There is such a negative stigma attached to those who do NOT have at least a bachelors or those who attend trade school, no wonder so many people and families bury themselves in meaningless debt.

  • “The speed of secondary and latterly tertiary education has created a large population of people, often with well-developed literary and scholarly tastes, who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought.” Peter Medawar.

  • I’d argue that the question isn’t too many or too little, but the mismatch. We are educating too few engineers and scientists, too few nurses and doctors, too few IT professionals and too many of (pick your own fav punching bag).

  • I don’t think the problem is education per se. I think the larger issue is that American society has conflated education and training. That is to say that we now look to liberal education as the only form of respectable professional training. We have spent the last four decades trashing the trades and trade-based training. This is a result of that move. We have diminished the value of a liberal education by looking to it for much of the kind of training we should have gotten from a properly functioning trade system.

  • Actually it’s worse than that.

    If you peel open the jobs that ostensibly require technical skills, you will find that most of the project engineers, program managers, and other management hangers on who form the bulk of engineers that large companies hire, do nothing more than fill spreadsheets and tables in various database, leaving out the actual work to immigrants or to engineers in far away lands. People can be trained for such jobs within a few months after a bare minimum high school education.

  • This was really interesting. I’d love to see a cross analysis of types of degrees to types of jobs. ie- Are all the Janitor PHDs Art Majors? Did they go to Community College?

  • Zero jobs were created in the “aughts” and the last 30 years we have been shipping our jobs infrustructure and technology to slave wage countries.Our largest export is trash….literally and no Im not kidding.So the problem isnt that we have too many educated people for the jobs its that we have too few good jobs for the people.And THAT has to do with public policies that prefer outsourcing to domestic production.

  • A long, long time ago my father (who had a Canadian secondary education comparable to two years of college)declared that it would take a college degree to push a broom the way people were being assembly lined into post secondary school. Gads! My dad was actually right! Also, take a look at what happened in India some years ago. Tons of unemployed Ph.D’s and no plumbers. Hey, where is the balance????

  • Whoever said the education with GET you the job?! I’ve always had to work hard to get my jobs, before and after graduating; I know those kids with masters bartending– their parents paid for the four years of fun at college and they never expect to work hard; or, better yet, they are waiting for that perfect job that they feel entitled to, given their degree. I would always rather hire someone who had clearly worked their way up than babysitting someone with a top school degree; everyone should have an opp at education, but no one should have the expectation of be given stellar careers just because of their expensive (and mostly useless) degrees.

  • I hear a lot of people say they don’t know what they want to do in life for a career. School seems to be a way of pushing that decision to a later date. I have thought about proposing an introductory class to the community college here that focuses on helping people figure out what they do want to do, if they need the education and how to function in society with the basics of every day life. School may teach you how to write a paper but it lacks teaching the vast majority how to buy a house, cook a meal, change the oil on a car, all the things you do in every day life. I think a class on some basics and some work helping people figure out what it is they want to do and what is required to get there would help in this area a lot and aid in preventing lost money and time dumped into higher education. However, I do agree that if someone enjoys school and then goes to work as a waiter or waitress later that’s not such a bad thing either. I mean some waiters and waitresses make more than I do a year and I do estimating for a high precision machine shop and use my degree, well sometimes…

  • Yeah – the irony.

    I stopped college with an Associates degree (AA)… today I own my own company, support a family of six, send my children to private school and maintain a decent 6 figure income.

    To quote Mark Twain – “Never let schooling get in the way of your education”

    I’m not against schooling – I do think that a solid education is important, but let’s not confuse education with a degree, or a degree with a career.

  • The idea that universities should serve simply as vocational training institutions frankly makes me nauseous.

  • To quote Kevin Daly: “The idea that universities should serve simply as vocational training institutions frankly makes me nauseous.”

    I have three children; two of whom recently finished college and one who quit college during the end of freshman year.

    While it is certainly too early to predict how their careers will end up, I can tell you that the two graduates are in the lead.

    The two graduates did not choose highly sought after majors (one was in English/Humanities and the other was in Communications). That said, the communications major, who graduated a year and a half ago, is gainfully employed in her field. The English/humanities major,who finished school two months ago and is recovering from recent major back surgery, is gainfully employed in a job she finds compelling but not in her field.

    The non-graduate is considering vocational school or possibly community college. I have high hopes for all three of them, but I can tell you which ones, at this point, have the easier paths.

    Don’t forget, it isn’t just the degree that dictates whether or no someone is a sought after employee. Factors such as personal motivation, job history, personality traits, discipline and maturity also enter into the equation.

  • I agree the fault lies more on the student than the schools. In my university days, most students seemed more focused on getting through the classes rather than really learning something important.

    If you join a health club and don’t exercise, you can’t really blame the club for the inactivity of members.

    How many times do professors hear questions like “Do we need to know this for the exam?”

    My first degree was business and I had professors who lamented that many students didn’t even understand basic ideas like the purpose of corporate bonds. This was in a business faculty.

    Students who go through university doing the minimum required don’t really deserve good employment. They get out of it what they put in. Others who maximized their university experience and really learned, generally have little difficultly securing great work. Or even better, they create their own opportunities

    Education is what you make of it. Every school has great libraries, professors willing to listen and a small percentage of motivated students. The most talented take advantage of that incredible opportunity to better themselves. The rest just memorize facts for their next exams.

  • True confession: I make my living from what I learned in high school commercial art classes. The business experience and computer skills I gained after college were also helpful.

    As for college, the only career-useful part of it was gained through working as a reporter for the school paper. And, for that, I got zero course credit.

  • Two points to raise:

    1) According to Clinton, college graduates are less likely to commit crimes-

    2) I’ve read a few news articles on how other countries (read: China) are producing more engineering students than us, and are filling up the PhD slots in American universities. So it seems there may be some “global competitiveness” factor to the high-profile drive for higher education

  • I hear a lot of people say they were not sure what they wanted to do in life, so they went to school while they figured out. Maybe there should some courses added to high school curriculum that helps people figure out what they are good at and what they might want to do with their life instead of just promoting college and debt as the best solution.

    I have been reading Ben’s Startup book and I wish I would have kept the entrepreneurial spirit I had when I was 14 trying to come up with business ideas instead of going to college and spending 6 years to get a degree I don’t know what to do with. Don’t get me wrong I learned a lot, but I think I would have been better off doing something else. Eight years later, I’m back to looking for a mentor or co-partner to rekindle that entrepreneurial spirit I once had instead of trying to look for a job that would fit my hard earned degrees.

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  • I think every university should share such information so that students can choose their majors wisely. I am a graduate of an Online University which offer diversified range of courses in every field and extensive training and practical examples from the industry are shared with the students, I don’t think any other online university is providing such a good platform for students.

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