That “Janitor With a Degree” Study

From USA Today:

Nearly half of working Americans with college degrees are in jobs for which they’re overqualified, a new study out Monday suggests.

The study, released by the non-profit Center for College Affordability and Productivity, says the trend is likely to continue for newly minted college graduates over the next decade.

Vedder, whose study is based on 2010 Labor Department data, says the problem is the stock of college graduates in the workforce (41.7 million) in 2010 was larger than the number of jobs requiring a college degree (28.6 million).

That, he says, helps explain why 15% of taxi drivers in 2010 had bachelor’s degrees vs. 1% in 1970. Among retail sales clerks, 25% had a bachelor’s degree in 2010. Less than 5% did in 1970.

So let’s start with the obvious, since maybe one day an enterprising reporter will actually bother to see where the funding for this non-profit entity comes from instead of blithely recycling the language from their press release. Here’s a blurb from The American Independent on CCAP that summarizes the situation pretty well:

The entity behind CCAP is an Arlington, Va.-based organization called Donors Trust Inc., a nonprofit that, acting as a conduit and steward, specializes in funding conservative causes based on the intent of donors, who remain one step removed from the recipients of their donations.

Progressive blog Crooks and Liars spotlighted Donors Trust in April, calling it “a tax-deductible slush fund. If a donor or foundation wants to put money toward a project and doesn’t want it to be a direct gift reportable to the IRS, all they do is give it to Donors Trust.”

If you go to the Donor’s Trust page, it’s pretty clear that you’re donating to get the sort of results that would support defunding education. Here’s the about page:

It is all too common for philanthropic capital (especially from foundations) to stray from the original donor’s wishes and the free market principles that made their philanthropy possible in the first place. As an antidote to this drift, DonorsTrust was established as a 501(c)(3) public charity to ensure the intent of donors who are dedicated to the ideals of limited government, personal responsibility, and free enterprise. As such, DonorsTrust provides an innovative charitable vehicle for donors who wish to safeguard their charitable intent to fund organizations that undergird America’s founding principles.

And here’s what they say about CCAP:

Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP). Conventional wisdom holds that America is under-invested in higher education and that students do not have enough access to colleges and universities. The solution advanced by the proponents of this claim is greater government expenditures on higher education. Based on preliminary research, CCAP believes that the opposite is true, and that we are perhaps over-invested in higher education. This research study addresses this deficiency and forms the foundation for later research on how to make higher education less dependent on government subsidies.

So, one would imagine that instead of blandly referring to CCAP as a nonprofit organization we’d refer to them as a “libertarian think tank” funded by the Koch brothers and others (although really, who knows who funds them?). Given the funding and intent of the organization, the chance of CCAP finding that we are undereducated is approximately zero. The chance of them finding we are overeducated nears 100%. That seems important to note.

As for the study, there’s so much unaccounted for in this Vedder study that it’s near to useless. First, the idea that a job that doesn’t require a degree doesn’t benefit from one is weird. My job doesn’t require a PhD. I have a Masters and I do fine. But if I had a PhD I’d make substantially more. I might also be more effective. The same is true for most jobs.

For jobs where it isn’t, there’s usually an underlying story. The United States and Canada, for example, both have a large number of immigrants who come to this country and drive cabs to make a living.  Many of those immigrants have degrees acquired in their native country.  Here’s some actual data from Canada on this:

“Taxi driving was the main job for 255 doctorate or medicine and related degree holders – 200 of which were immigrants. A further 6,040 taxi drivers (12.0%) held a bachelor’s or master’s degree the majority of them (80.7%) being immigrants. Among all immigrant taxi drivers, 20.2% have bachelor’s degree or better; more than 4 times the rate for Canadian-born taxi drivers (4.8%).”

So in Canada, at least, a stunning 12% of cab drivers have bachelor’s degrees or better — but the amount of Canadian-born college educated taxi drivers is a much less shocking 4.8%. Part of the increase since 1970 that Vedder cites is certainly due to the increase in foreign-born taxi drivers, which in 1970 comprised only 8% of American taxi drivers.

This is classic Vedder, unfortunately. Have an intern go into a public database, do a few simple math calculations, account for nothing, call it a “study” (even though it is published and reviewed nowhere). Make sure you choose a year (here 2010, the depths of the recession) that is atypical, and don’t account for that either. Ignore compositional effects, and for your soundbites choose professions (such as cab driver) that are disproportionately impacted by other factors. In short, juice every statistic to get maximum impact, issue a press release about it, and wait for the coverage to roll in.

And the surprising thing is it is just that easy. It gets published, blindly, again and again.

Are we over-educated? Maybe. We are certainly underemployed at this point in time, due to the recession and sluggish growth. A careful study that set out to find out the truth could probably shed some light on the relationship between degrees and the work people end up doing. This is not that study, and it should be the job of reporters to tell you that.

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