Sally Cameron thought she had done everything right. After studying French and Arabic at a tony liberal arts college, she knew that graduate school would help her career chances. But when she hit the job market, her Ivy League management degree didn’t seem to matter. The worst recession in decades had pushed the unemployment rate to nearly 10 percent and good jobs were scarce. Sally paid the rent by tending bar and filled her time with volunteer work.
Meanwhile, experts and government officials warned that the days ahead would be grim. For decades, a growing number of students had streamed into higher education assuming that their degrees would lead to prosperity. Now people were openly questioning whether college was really worth it. As one George Washington University labor economist said, “A surfeit of any commodity—a BA or an MA—means that eventually it will stop paying off.”
Sally’s story sounds like the kind of depressing story filling the pages of newspapers and the popular press these days. Two weeks ago, the The New York Timespublished an article titled “Many With New College Degree Find the Job Market Humbling.” The piece immediately shot to the top of the Times’ “most emailed” list. Chemistry majors were tending bar, it noted, while labor economists were finding an alarming number of college graduates in jobs that did not require a college degree.
There’s only one difference: Sally Cameron earned her master’s degree from Yale in 1980. TheWashington Post story that described her struggles was published in 1982. For going on four decades, the press has been raising alarms that college degrees may no longer be a sound investment. Two things about these stories have remained constant: They always feature an over-educated bartender, and they are always wrong.