You need a college degree to get a good job. That’s been the case for some time. But a story in the New York Times yesterday pointed out that in this economy, you need a college degree to get a bad job. Increasingly, you need a college degree to get most kinds of office jobs, even if those jobs are as intellectually simple as “receptionist.”

I suspect that’s been true for some time as well. At this point, I expect every “white-collar” employee I interact with to have at least “some college.” Actually, I expect most blue-collar people I interact with to be formally educated as well, albeit in a different country. We’re living in an age of over-credentialization. Just like everybody in Hollywood has had a little work done, one expects that everybody in an office has had to sit through a terminally boring lecture on how many miles you have to go before you can fall asleep to a boring Robert Frost poem.

But, there’s getting a little work done, and there’s walking around with flotation devices bolted to your chest.

And I wonder, to extend the analogy to its logical conclusion, if getting a law degree is kind of like a waitress borrowing $10K to get a boob job thinking that getting her DDs is all that’s standing between her making $9.50 plus tips versus becoming a movie star….

Catherine Rampell’s story in the Times highlights an Atlanta law firm that requires everybody to have a college degree:

This prerequisite applies to everyone, including the receptionist, paralegals, administrative assistants and file clerks. Even the office “runner” — the in-house courier who, for $10 an hour, ferries documents back and forth between the courthouse and the office — went to a four-year school.

Don’t get them wrong, based on the picture in the article, the receptionist still has to be “hot.” I imagine the runner still has to be “fast,” and the file clerks still have to be “too hideous for polite company.” They just also have to have some basic college education.

Employers can hold people to these high standards because the economy is tough and people are desperate:

Economists have referred to this phenomenon as “degree inflation,” and it has been steadily infiltrating America’s job market. Across industries and geographic areas, many other jobs that didn’t used to require a diploma…

Plus, it’s a buyer’s market for employers.

“When you get 800 résumés for every job ad, you need to weed them out somehow,” said Suzanne Manzagol, executive recruiter at Cardinal Recruiting Group, which does headhunting for administrative positions at Busch, Slipakoff & Schuh and other firms in the Atlanta area.

I think it’s an extension of the same logic that leads so many people to law school. If you are already taking out $50,000 to graduate from a four-year college to get a job that pays $10 an hour, it doesn’t sound ridiculous to take out another $100K to go to law school and maybe make a middle-class salary.

People want their résumé to stand out. Even if they don’t really want to be lawyers, they think that having a J.D. in that pile will give them a leg up against the college graduates competing for the same job.

And it probably does, if all you want is the kind of job you can now get with a college degree. But that, of course, is stupid. It’s stupid to get a much more expensive education for a shot at a job that you could have gotten without the extra degree. Think about it, 30 years ago, you didn’t see people spending the money on college so they could go back home and work on the factory floor with all their friends who didn’t have a “fancy” college degree.

Now college is the new high school. And that stinks for people who are going to end up working on the factory floor (sorry, for Americans under 30, I should probably link the word “factory”; it’s a place where people used to build things and earn a decent enough wage to buy the products they produced). But going to law school to compete for jobs where a college degree is enough is still a bad economic decision. Going to law school to work as a file clerk in a law firm in Atlanta is a bad deal.

At least for now. God help us when degree inflation makes grad school the new high school.

It Takes a B.A. to Find a Job as a File Clerk [New York Times]

Earlier: In Defense of Law School: Because What Else Are You Going To Do With Yourself?


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