This past Tuesday, Michigan state representatives Rebekah Warren (D-Ann Arbor) and Alma Wheeler Smith (D-Salem) presented a plan to make college virtually free for all Michigan residents attending in-state public colleges. With only a couple of high school attendance and income eligibility rules, the plan is a bold commitment to ensure all Michigan residents receive access to higher education. The government’s desire to make higher education more affordable certainly isn’t new — as tuition rates have risen at four times the rate of inflation over the past 20 years, lawmakers and students alike have been wondering if students will be able to keep paying for college.
But for all the hype about the cost of higher education, few are concerned about the costs of these policies. There are monetary costs — an income tax rate increase of 26 percent for Warren and Smith’s plan — but there are also harmful effects on the job market as a whole. And these harmful effects could be increasing unemployment and lowering college graduates’ salaries.
As a state, Michigan has had difficulty retaining its college graduates. In 2007, 35,000 college-educated workers ages 22 to 34 left the state while only 18,000 entered it — the lowest ratio of any state. To counter this exodus, the state began paying for some college students first two years of post-secondary education through the Michigan Promise scholarship in 2006. Now they’re toying with the plan to cover all residents’ in-state tuition costs.
But these plans don’t seem like they’ll have an effect on the state’s college-graduate mass migration. With the horrible condition of Michigan’s economy, creating more college graduates will only increase the supply of graduates, not the demand for them, so enabling more Michigan residents to attend college will only enable more Michigan residents to leave the state. That’s good for them, but bad for the state — and the residents left behind to pay their college bills.
Michigan’s problem with an oversupply of college graduates isn’t unique to the state — it’s a growing national concern. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 29 percent of the workforce has a college degree but only 24 percent of jobs require them. And as the nation produces more than 1.5 million jobseekers with bachelor degrees every year, this is looking like a long-term trend. Unlike Michigan residents, Americans in general don’t seek jobs outside their geographic boundaries when they can’t find one. Instead, they lower their standards and obtain jobs at which they’re overqualified. According to the BLS, that’s the case for five percent of all workers.
With this oversupply of college graduates and the trend not looking like it’s going to end anytime soon, it’s hard to understand the benefits of making college more accessible. It may seem as if increasing the number of college graduates is a good thing, especially for those graduates. But the oversupply means that companies have a much greater number of graduates to choose from and graduates have more people to compete against. Graduates, excited to receive a job requiring their degree, will be happy to take any job offer no matter how low the starting salary. After all, one is a high number when it comes to how many job offers a post-graduate is receiving. This lowers the starting salaries of college graduates. And with a lower salary, students are less able to pay back their student loans, hurting one of the goals of higher-education policies in the first place.
There are those lucky few who do receive job offers, but the discrepancy between supply and demand means there will be some graduates who don’t get job offers from any position requiring a degree. So many college graduates, as the BLS states, end up in jobs that don’t require one. Employers are happy to hire them because they get exemplary employees. The group of people most affected here, though, are those who would have received the jobs had there not been an oversupply of college graduates. With the oversupply, employers can hire college graduates when they don’t actually need them, consequently making a college degree a prerequisite for the job. Left out of a job, these other displaced workers need a college degree to get one — and will need to spend tens of thousands of dollars and years out of work in the process. If these people have families and bills to pay, they’re out of luck. Even worse, once out of college, they will again displace more workers, continuing the cycle.
So while it may seem like a good idea for lawmakers to increase accessibility to higher education, policies aimed at improving higher-education accessibility exacerbate the problems they seek to solve. They are harmful to the state, the nation and even the college graduates themselves.
Patrick Zabawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.