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Hard Choices for High School Seniors

If parents have already sent a check to the four-year college that has accepted their son or daughter for the fall semester, what follows will not be welcome news. Nevertheless, it needs to be said.

The trend of underemployment for nearly half of those with a bachelor's degree is highly likely to continue for years, according to a study released on Mar. 25 by the National Bureau of Economic Research ("College Grads May Be Stuck in Low-Skill Jobs," The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 26). Investigators found that demand for college-level employees hit its peak as a share of the workforce around 2000 and has declined ever since. Despite the change in demand, the supply of college graduates has continued to grow.

This disconnect does not surprise me. As I've written before, I believe we've been wildly oversold on the importance of a bachelor's degree. Although it's true that better-educated workers have brighter prospects than their less-educated counterparts, this generalization is not particularly helpful. That's because it says nothing about the kind of major or the reputation of the college.

College, of course, has never been only about landing a well paying job. But because of the cost of getting a degree today, that consideration must be taken into serious account by the overwhelming number of high school seniors. It's hard to advise them not to pursue a degree in the humanities, for example, if they're so inclined. On the other hand, it's irresponsible to avoid telling them that they're not likely to get a job right away with such a specialization.

The other factor not reflected in the generalization is the cachet of the college. When so many students have degrees, employers are going to pay close attention to which institution conferred the degree. When I received my B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania, I'm convinced that the only reason I was granted interviews was the school's reputation. (Penn admitted 12.1 percent of 31,280 applicants this year.) If my experience was typical so many decades ago, I'm sure it's even more so today. In any competitive setting, it's only natural for those involved to try to stand out. One of the ways is by brand name. If not by brand name, then at least by a choice of major.

If I had children, I'd be frank with them. I'd advise them to take a hard look inside themselves to see if they've thought through the probable outcome of taking on heavy student debt for a degree that likely won't open doors to their dream job.

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