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Growing up, I used to think that college was always a place of growth, where you could learn anything you wanted with like-minded people and broaden your horizons. Now, as one of many students at the University of Michigan, I can say confidently that although these things do ring true, they are not without their caveats. The wealth of knowledge and opportunities available in higher education is more than one person could ever take advantage of, but as time has gone on, the rose-tinted lenses have come off and I’ve come to realize that reality doesn’t always live up to our expectations.

American college students today are burdened with a collective total of $1.75 trillion in debt, a figure only made worse when comparing the 169% increase in college costs since 1980 to the 19% increase in wages for workers aged 22 to 27. Despite these disproportional results, however, the demand for a college degree has only continued to rise. Whereas 16% of the Silent Generation earned college degrees, 51% of individuals from Generation Z surveyed stated that they would be likely to pursue a college degree.

On the surface level, a highly-educated populace seems to serve as an overall positive: With higher education, more individuals are equipped to fulfill the demands of an ever-advancing world. Ideally, everyone seeking a college education is doing so because of their passions for a subject, making them ideal candidates to fulfill a role that requires their area of expertise. The issue here is that in our current economic climate, despite the aggressive uptick of college enrollment over the last few decades, the pool of these ideal candidates has become diluted by individuals that have come for the degrees, but not for the education. Sure, this increase in enrollment could be reasonably attributed to more people seeking knowledge and opportunities best found in higher education, but the reality is likely far less favorable. The job market has made a degree necessary to reach a higher standard of living, even when a degree does next to nothing to improve the employee’s productivity.

The issue is one of a surplus of overqualification, and has grown into a cycle. To start, we can take a peek at past trends. While wages have remained largely stagnant for college graduates, the cost of living was once relatively far lower. Ultimately, there was once a time when a college degree led to a higher income-to-cost ratio than today. This is how our cycle begins, with the majority of Americans believing that college is the best option we have to succeed. This leads to higher enrollment, but also to the previously mentioned caveat: many of these prospective students choose to attend college for the degrees, not for the education. It doesn’t help that an overwhelming proportion of our success in a class is determined by test scores. Aside from basic anti-cheating measures, which resourceful students will find ways around, what’s to stop someone from engaging in academic misconduct for the sake of a passing grade? What exactly is there to incentivize a student to go above and beyond in their learning when they can settle on being prepared enough to avoid failing? I’ll bite: absolutely nothing, because many students aren’t attending college to do anything more than pass. It is this mentality that, when held by so many people that feel as if they have no other options, begins to take away from the learning aspect that defines what higher education is supposed to be.

However, this isn’t where our cycle ends. What happens when these workers enter the workforce? This is where degree inflation amplifies into an even greater concern. With so much new, “highly educated” manpower, what’s to set apart someone without a degree to take on a role when there’s someone with a degree available to fill the position? This in turn has led to a disproportionate increase in the number of job listings requiring college degrees, even when they were not required previously. One such instance exists for supervisory positions. Only 16% of people in jobs described as “supervisory positions” have college degrees, but 67% of all new listings for similar roles require that applying candidates have one. Suddenly, all of these jobs are requiring college degrees, even when they are unnecessary, thereby pushing the narrative that a college degree really is the best way to live comfortably. In turn, the cycle begins anew, albeit now with college looking less and less like the best option we have to succeed and more like the only option given wage stagnation and inflation over time.

Today, higher education faces a grim reality: Colleges are filled with students that attend not to learn, but to bolster their resume. To that end, these students are not attending because they truly want to, but because they have to thanks to the absurd increase in hiring qualifications for jobs that never needed a degree in the first place. The worst part of this is not what has been done, but what’s to come. Breaking the cycle without some sort of intervention remains impractical. Employers have no incentive to decrease their standards as long as the pool of qualified applicants continues to grow. It seems even more unlikely that the workforce would attempt to protest in any significant way, as it would only incentivize employers to choose another candidate from the ever-growing pool of qualified individuals for a job. Truthfully, the future looks bleak, and until something changes, it looks as if the degree inflation cycle will only continue.

Mohammed Hasan is an Opinion Columnist & can be reached at momerh@umich.edu.

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