Last month, a local business that designs "premium fashion, luxury and sports eyewear" for everyone from Oakley to LensCrafters placed an ad seeking a new customer-service representative.
It makes sense that the ideal applicant would possess "excellent telephone etiquette." But ask yourself this: Does this customer service representative really need a college or university degree?
Higher education and its excesses are quickly becoming a national issue. In their new book Higher Education?, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus show how universities are struggling with swollen administrative staffs, endless construction projects, out-of-control athletic departments and professors with lifetime tenure. For universities, the easiest solution has been to increase enrollment and to raise tuition.
That's how we've arrived at our current system where more and more students feel compelled to go to college, even as the cost of doing so has risen at four times the inflation rate since 1982.
But one thing missing from this conversation — you won't find it in Hacker and Dreifus' book — is the role businesses play in encouraging this unsustainable growth.
We don't mean how many entry-level jobs they offer. (Those numbers, if anything, are a deterrent: Where half of the class of 2007 graduated with a job offer in hand, that number has dropped to one-fifth for the class of 2009.) Instead, we mean the standards businesses set.
Whether they're hiring bank tellers, telemarketers or salespeople of various stripes, more and more businesses require (or, in what amounts to the same thing, "prefer") a four-year degree for jobs where this just doesn't make sense.
We understand why individual businesses do this. In an economy tilted toward employers, they can afford to be selective. A higher ratio of degree-holding employees can reinforce a business' self-image as a company on the make and on the rise. It also allows that company to outsource its evaluations — to let higher education pre-select the most qualified candidates.
The problem comes when every business starts doing this. Many different forces push students toward college: expectant parents, well-meaning high school advisers, even a pop culture that portrays dorm-room life as the norm. But none of these bring with it the clarity and finality of an employer who requires a four-year degree.
We admit that businesses and their hiring culture make up only one cog in the college-exploitation machine, but it's a cog that is too frequently overlooked — and one that can, and should, self-correct. If you accept the proposition that not everyone needs to go to college — around half of today's college students end up dropping out — then it's time to hold businesses accountable for their role in this mess.
The point is, businesses aren't innocent bystanders or even unwitting accomplices; they share in the guilt of the current system. In fixating on four-year degrees, businesses are also hurting themselves.
One of us works at Atkins & Pearce Inc., a Covington manufacturer that's been family-owned for seven generations and that, last year, won Kentucky's Mid-Sized Manufacturer of the Year. Some of the company's best employees — in accounting, in purchasing, in sales, even on the executive committee — do not have college degrees.
It's proof to us that, just because you can hire nothing but degree-holders, it doesn't mean you should.
But the first step remains for businesses to take responsibility and to do it now, before things become even more absurd. After all, one of the things we learned in college is that, in a free-market economy, if you're not moving forward, you're moving backward.
How else do you explain the local automotive supplier that expects its new commodity buyer to come with a graduate degree?