Is the U.S. at Risk of Having Too Many College Graduates?

South Korea has so many college grads for so few jobs that the president is discouraging students from seeking higher education.

In his speech late last month announcing plans to fast-track student loan reform, President Obama said that America's prosperity depends on boosting the number of college graduates by the year 2020. But South Korea, a country that’s long been touted as a shining example of education success, shows that there is a real danger in having too many college graduates. About 82 percent of South Korean high school grads head to college, but there aren’t enough jobs that require a degree or pay enough to justify the expense. So South Korean president Lee Myung-bak is attempting to discourage students from going to college.

According to The Economist, Myung-bak believes "reckless entrance into college is bringing huge losses to families and the country alike." The glut of graduates is so severe that the majority of degree holders can't find decent jobs. Just like in the United States, South Korean students are told that if they graduate from college, they're assured of a bright future and high-paying job. Then, like too many grads here, they find themselves unemployed.

The South Korean government wants to change the societal notion that success requires a college degree. So Myung-bak and his advisors are busy pressuring South Korean businesses to roll back their higher education requirements, offer jobs to students who only have a high school diploma, and provide them industry-specific training. “Professional footballers just need to be good at kicking balls," Myung-bak says. "They don’t need to graduate from Seoul National University.”

For American education experts, the question is whether South Korea's glut of college grads could happen here. Numerous supporters of the Occupy Wall Street movement have described themselves as college students worried about mountains of debt and no decent job after graduation. More college grads are heading to the armed forces in the hopes of alleviating their student loan debt and finding a guaranteed job with Uncle Sam.

Of course, college graduation rates in the U.S. are nowhere near South Korea’s—only about 30 percent of American adults over the age of 25 have a degree. Furthermore, American college grads are twice as likely to be employed as their peers with high school diplomas, and they earn millions more over their lifetimes. It's no wonder that, despite the recession, the majority of degree holders say their degrees are worth the time and financial investment.

That said, it's not a bad idea to encourage employers to critically think about whether a job truly requires a degree. Too many businesses simply use college diplomas as a screening tool, and the more people go to college, the higher they raise the education bar. Besides, if more companies invested in providing on-the-job training, they could stop complaining that employeess don't have skills and knowledge they need for the workforce.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Jason Bache

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