Academic Inflation and the Affordability of Higher Education

By Martha Wyatt Luth | May 5, 2022

The affordability of higher education has been a pressing topic since attending college became increasingly necessary to compete in the job market. A phenomenon called “Academic Inflation” has swept across the job market in the US and much of the world. People have to seek college degrees to acquire jobs that don’t necessarily require them intellectually. And jobs that at one point only required an associate's or bachelor’s, now require a master’s just to be a competitive applicant. The is a hot pursuit for higher education, but it may very well be for the wrong reasons.

According to The Hill, in 2017, “Just over a third of American adults have a four-year college degree, the highest level ever measured by the U.S. Census Bureau.” In contrast, the Census Bureau accounted for less than five percent of Americans having a college degree in 1940. Urbanization and technological advancements have been large contributors. There was a decrease in the need for hands-on blue-collar jobs as machinery and computers could take over these jobs more efficiently. Information became a commodity, and thus, became highly valued if you could attain a good education. And the GI Bill of Rights post World War II, and later Higher Education Act of 1965, both helped education become more affordable.

Jeffery Corbett, a high school graduate in Stillwater Oklahoma told NPR in 2014, “I think about it all the time because I realize [how] it has limited me, by not having that piece of paper." Has higher education provided us more freedom and recourses to pursue our passions or is it really just constricting society?

Ask ten people on the street if they think college helped them in their current job and most will likely say what they studied in school doesn’t directly relate to what they do at work. But, they will likely argue to the experiences and skills gained at school have transferred over. This may be true, or it may just be a way to rationalize spending thousands of dollars on an education. Either way, the reality is that for the average person, getting a college degree seems to be an expensive detour toward their professional career.

The US has a large problem in its hands. While the job market increasingly requires more education, it is becoming increasingly expensive. President Biden has once again pushed back financial aids loans for higher education, but this is just a short-term solution to a systemic issue. In the last fifteen years, the price of higher education has skyrocketed. Claudio Sanchez, from NPR, found that in Arizona, “parents have seen a 77 percent increase in costs. In Georgia, it's 75 percent, and in Washington state, 70 percent” from 2009 to 2014. The price of education may be rising, but it's certainly not because the value of education is rising. Less state funding for schools means private institutions have to find the funding elsewhere. And, there is a public perception that high tuition fees likely correlate with high valued education.

It is notable that in the last several years, there has been a dramatic drop off in college enrollment. According to Elissa Nadworny from NPR, “More than 1 million fewer students are enrolled in college now than before the pandemic began.” And, it is important to consider that deferrals due to the COVID-19 pandemic made very little impact on this statistic. “The National Student Clearinghouse found that of the 2020 high school graduates who chose not to enroll in college after graduation, only 2% ended up enrolling a year later, in the fall of 2021.”

And with the unemployment rate dropping, it is clear that Americans are choosing to work instead of getting college degrees. With the current times being uncertain with the ongoing pandemic and large international conflict, perhaps there has been a shift in mindset from a long-term outlook on life to short-term survival. Even worse, this has predominantly affected lower-income families, suggesting there will just be an increasing disparity in access to higher education. Economies suffer when workers are underqualified, but economies are also inefficient if they are sending workers to gain unnecessary degrees. To bridge the gap, higher education needs to become more affordable for lower-income families.

As we continue our own educations on the hill, it’s important to consider the value of our college degree not just for ourselves, but the impact it has on our broader economy. As students of a Jesuit institution, instilled in us is a mission to be for and with others. So, what will you do?

Edited by Erin Haddad and Joseph Barbieri