Zack Morrison, a 29-year-old who graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in Film from Columbia University in 2018, is facing financial challenges due to his student loan debt.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Morrison revealed that his outstanding balance, including accrued interest, is nearly $300,000. Despite working as an assistant and part-time employee in Hollywood, he earns only between $30,000 and $50,000 per year.
Have you noticed that just like the money you work hard to earn, the purchasing power of degrees is also decreasing?
From Columbia University Master’s graduates struggling to pay off their student loans and not earning enough to cover their tuition fees, to recent reports of students spending $1.4 million on studying in the US only to earn a salary of $4,500 upon returning to their home country, the issue of the depreciation of degrees is gaining more attention.
According to a study, graduates from Columbia University’s film program applied for federal student loans with a median debt of $181,000. However, two years after obtaining their Master’s degree, half of the graduates had an annual income of less than $30,000.
In addition, an analysis of data from the US Education Department by The Wall Street Journal shows that in recent years, top-tier universities, such as Columbia, have awarded thousands of Master’s degrees, but the early-career earnings of their graduates are not enough to begin repaying their federal student loans.
Furthermore, Dr. Bryan Caplan, an economics professor at George Mason University, has even published a book titled “The Case Against Education,” using calculations to argue that the education system wastes a significant amount of time and money.
The depreciation of degrees, or so-called degree inflation, is a global phenomenon that is becoming increasingly concerning.
01Degree "Inflation" on a Global Scale
Previously, high school graduates could qualify for jobs such as construction supervisors, loan officers, insurance salespersons, and office assistants. Nowadays, a bachelor’s degree is required for these positions.
Jobs that used to only require a bachelor’s degree, such as government officials, university counselors, and tour guides, now require a master’s degree.
Jobs that once required only a master’s degree, such as laboratory assistants and community college lecturers, now require a Ph.D.
Even jobs that used to require a Ph.D., such as university professors, now require postdoctoral research qualifications.
China is no exception to this trend. A deputy director of the Nanshan District Office in Shenzhen holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University, while top students from China’s leading universities now work as primary school teachers in major cities. According to reports, master’s degree holders make up only 1% of the 7 million food delivery drivers in China, totaling 70,000 people.
Thirty years ago, graduates of technical schools were considered state officials and could become leaders in their units. Today, even graduates with master’s degrees are considered entry-level, and a prestigious doctoral degree from a top university is necessary to be taken seriously.
According to Cui Xiangqun, a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, graduate students today are no different from technical school graduates or community college graduates of the past. The phenomenon of education inflation is most evident in the United States, where it is now almost impossible to become president without a graduate degree.
In the early days of the United States, more than ten presidents had no higher education. George Washington did not have a university degree, and Lincoln received only one year of formal education. However, in the past century, not only has a college degree become a requirement for the presidency, but a graduate degree is also necessary. Wilson had a doctoral degree, Kennedy, Bush Jr., and Trump held master’s degrees from business schools, while Roosevelt, Nixon, Ford, Clinton, Obama, and current President Biden all hold law degrees. Even Biden’s wife has a doctoral degree in education.
Without a graduate degree, it is difficult to even consider running for President of the United States.
The same educational requirements apply to leaders in ancient Eastern countries as well. It is unnecessary to go into detail, but a comparison of the educational backgrounds of several generations of leaders in these countries reveals no difference from those in the United States.
02Why does this phenomenon occur?
First of all, of course, is the improvement of the overall education level of society.
In the 1980s, only 1 million people took the college entrance examination every year, and by 2019, the number of people in the college entrance examination exceeded 10 million. In 1986, Chinese universities admitted only 570,000 candidates. In 2019, the number of college graduates reached 8.3 million.
The proportion of the population receiving higher education has increased significantly in China, Europe and the United States. The substantial increase in the supply of degrees will inevitably lead to the depreciation of academic qualifications.
This is actually a good phenomenon, because the result is the popularization of education and the specialization of society. The sign of social development is the professional level of occupation.
The doctors in the hospital saw you, many barefoot doctors decades ago, and now many graduate students in many schools, do you feel much more relieved? Middle school teachers have a technical secondary school degree decades ago, but now they all have a bachelor‘s degree or a graduate degree. Of course, I can feel the difference.
Therefore, the result of the depreciation of academic qualifications is that the whole society has enjoyed the dividend of specialization. It is a sign of social development.
On the other hand, according to the principles of general economics, the depreciation of academic qualifications, like the depreciation of currency, is due to the imbalance between supply and demand. As the saying goes, wolves have more meat.
There are only a few job vacancies, and there are a lot of applicants. You have to find a reasonable reason to eliminate you. Education has become the best screening excuse. As a result, the water rose, and the director of the street office needed a doctoral degree from Harvard University. The top student in Qingbei became a teacher of Shenzhen Primary School, and even a clerk who typed and poured water in the office required a 985 bachelor‘s degree.
This shows that social employment is becoming more and more difficult. The passage to the rise of the class is becoming narrow.
The so-called internal volume means that when the input is more and more, the output is less and less. More and more resources are invested, but the efficiency is getting lower and lower. Although the total amount is growing, social development shows signs of stagnation, and there is ”growth without development“.
Obviously, many positions do not require a higher education at all. The higher and higher academic requirements of employers can only show that competition has intensified, and there is no better excuse to eliminate so many candidates.
In addition, universities in China, Europe and the United States are in line with the requirements of this era of academic depreciation.
Universities have contributed to this general trend, and the continuous production of high-educated ”talents“ that do not need in society. Because the needs of universities are not consistent with the needs of society.
Only by continuously expanding can universities get more resources from the government and society, become bigger and stronger, train more students, and expand their own influence.
It is in the interests of the university to continuously expand enrollment and establish new colleges, so that the head of the teaching and research department can become the dean and the dean of the department. The expansion of higher education is the inherent demand of universities.
Whether students can find a job after graduation is not the core interest of the university. In other words, universities are more like companies and providers of educational services.
Students are customers and buyers of services. After the customer completes the purchase, what is the marginal benefit and whether the cost performance is high enough is not a question for the seller to consider.
Therefore, as long as there is a chance, universities will try their best to expand their production capacity. After all, if you don’t expand your enrollment, other universities will also expand your enrollment. If you don‘t eat this fat meat, you will naturally have other colleges and universities to eat it. The decision of one or two universities to streamline institutions and reduce enrollment cannot change the general trend of academic expansion.
On the other hand, because academic qualifications have the function of marking social status, even if they don‘t learn anything in school, graduates generally do not destroy themselves. Because smashing the school’s sign is smashing your own signboard. Therefore, once the transaction of education services is completed, the interests of buyers and sellers are magically bound together.
Unlike ordinary business, even if the diploma is heavily flooded, universities don‘t have to worry too much about customers leaving bad reviews. After all, as long as the school is not too bad, most students will look back at their alma mater like a wanderer looking at their mother after graduation.
For buyers of education, students and parents, it is impossible to be forced to buy less and less cost-effective academic qualifications. In an internal society, although the expanding investment can only bring about weak marginal growth. But the problem is that once the investment is abandoned, the consequences can be disastrous.
Because the way out of society is becoming more and more narrow. Having a degree may not be successful. Without a degree, there must be a dead end.
Do you dare to joke about your child’s future?
That‘s why both China and the United States are cultivating too many masters and doctors that society does not need at all. As a result, a large number of doctors in humanities and basic natural sciences could not find jobs after graduation.
For every university job vacancy, at least hundreds of doctors will send resumes. At the same time, the doctor who can find a job also found that due to oversupply and fierce competition, the actual income of high-educated owners has not increased or even decreased.
This makes more and more people feel that studying for a doctorate is a waste of time.
The last reason is the change of the whole public opinion orientation.
The value orientation of society and the high requirements for academic qualifications are forming positive feedback. As the saying goes, it is up and down, and the king of Chu has a small waist.
Decades ago, when society was still learning from poor middle-aged peasants, education was not an honor. At that time, the bookworms in the ivory tower seemed to be a little embarrassed without any dirt on their hands and legs.
Decades after the reform, the wind has turned sharply, and the academic level of public officials in China has been greatly improved. The master‘s degree and doctoral degree in the resume are common.
The group of businessmen who are most sensitive to the wind have also begun to run for higher degrees, spending a lot of money. The sexual assault scandal of X East Boss at the University of Minnesota in the United States began with the boss’s journey to study for a DBA (Doctor of Business Administration) in the United States.
According to media reports afterwards, these DBA degree programs in the United States are specially designed for Chinese millionaires. The courses are heavily flooded, but the tuition fees are extremely high.
It can be seen that the doctoral title of China‘s 985 University is no longer the elite Hermes. If you want to distinguish it from a local tycoon, you have to have a bronzing diploma from a beautiful country.
In a word, the intensification of social competition, the narrowing of the upward channel, the direction of public opinion, and the inherent interest demand of universities make it difficult to reverse the trend of academic expansion in the short term.
03How to deal with the devaluation of academic qualifications?
The global trend of academic depreciation may mean the following points for individuals.
First of all, a bachelor’s degree is changing from a luxury in the past to a rigid demand in the present. No matter what profession you are engaged in, a strong bachelor‘s degree is an entry level.
At the same time, a time-consuming and labor-intensive doctoral degree is not suitable for everyone. Before studying for a doctorate, it is recommended to have an in-depth understanding of the current situation of the subject and employment prospects, and then make a decision.
Make a reasonable estimate of the opportunity cost of studying for a doctorate (that is, other career opportunities lost because of studying for a doctorate). Never overestimate your interest in a certain subject.
You should know that once interest becomes a career, the result is likely to be the death of interest. For many ordinary people, the choice of career and personal interests are not the same most of the time, and must not be confused.
Short-term master’s courses should be considered if they are conducive to employment. In fact, the per capita share of master‘s degrees in the United States has been the fastest growing since the 1980s. In addition, large companies with reliable on-the-job training are also a cost-effective choice for vocational education.
In the end, education is just an admission ticket to an ideal life. Real achievements can only come from the experience and accumulation in the real society – no matter how inner volume this society is.