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Education, Underemployment, and Re-defining Success

A starling wearing a graduation cap is perched on a column above the words "Starling on work and life"

College degrees aren’t a reliable pathway to economic mobility. That’s one of the key points in a recent report titled Talent Disrupted: Underemployment, College Graduates, and the Way Forward published by The Burning Glass Institute and Strada Institute for the Future of Work.

And, honestly? I’m having a reaction to it.

College Degrees and "Underemployment"

The report explores the relationship between college degrees, employment, and earnings, based on the data of millions of graduates. The very first key finding is that “52 percent of graduates are underemployed a year after graduation.” Underemployment is defined as being “employed in jobs that don’t typically require a bachelor’s degree.” 

To make a 56-page story a little shorter, the report goes on to say that those who start out underemployed tend to stay underemployed over time and that the underemployed earn less than their counterparts—arguably a bad thing if you went to college primarily hoping to maximize your wealth, especially if you are coming out of college with a significant amount of debt, which many people do.

When first reading press coverage of the report, I had so many questions right out of the gate, including:

  • How are we determining what jobs require a bachelor’s degree? Many jobs say they require a degree…but do they really?

  • Are we assuming that the only goal of a college education is to immediately get a “college-level” job and ultimately earn the most money over time?

Reading the report itself, the authors do indeed acknowledge that education serves many important purposes other than providing a pathway to economic opportunity. They also acknowledge that figuring out which jobs require college-level education is challenging for a plethora of reasons.

But I think my biggest reaction is to the fact that there appears to be no mention of why those 52% of graduates are “underemployed” or how they felt about it. Did they consider themselves underemployed? How were those individuals defining success?

Value is in the Eye of the Beholder

My first job after graduating from Princeton University was shelving books at the American Library in Paris—nobody would argue that the job required a college degree. Additionally, I could argue that it would have been hard to find any job that actually required my bachelor’s degree in history with a theater minor. I was, by all definitions, “underemployed.”

Now, I recognize and acknowledge the privilege of my personal situation that allowed me to even consider an option like this right out of college…but neither does the data in the report differentiate between people like me and those with a different circumstance. In my case, I loved that job. I chose underemployment in service of exploring my interests and expanding my horizons. And I wonder how many of the underemployed graduates in the report did the same.

Personally, I hadn’t studied abroad in college, nor travelled much growing up, and I felt the urge to explore new places. I was considering pursuing a Ph.D. in French history, so what better place to be than in France? I happened to speak French because of my Canadian French-immersion education and had a European Union passport thanks to my parents—both of which made living and working in Paris a real option for me. So, I had proactively sent my resume to the library (what better place to explore a love of learning and reading) and asked if they had any openings. They said, “You can shelve books if you want,” and I gladly accepted.

I can imagine many other reasons for landing in roles that would classify someone as underemployed and yet be largely positive steps in their journey. By contrast, the language of the report predominantly paints underemployment in a negative light. Saying “underemployment is a large and persistent problem” and underemployment is something to be “escaped.”

As an interesting side note: the report classifies people in sales roles as “severely" underemployed, meaning that these jobs typically require only a high school degree or less. I have quite a few sales people in my network and "severely" doubt that any significant number of them would consider their line of work a large and persistent problem that needs to be escaped.

Regardless of how any of the graduates may have viewed their underemployment, they all seem to be lumped together as one big cautionary tale. The 52% statistic is used to both paint a scary picture for people hoping that a college degree will optimize their earnings and criticize schools for not giving students what they need in order to do so. The report does not acknowledge that not all of those graduates may have been hoping for that outcome in the first place and that making the most money doesn't need to be our prevailing definition of success.

Re-defining "Success"

Twenty years later, I wouldn’t change a thing about my education or my first year out of college. Was I still underemployed a decade after earning my degree in 2004 like many of the initially underemployed graduates in the report? Technically, no, because the job I held in 2014 required a college degree (but did it really?). Am I to this day earning less than peers who had college-level jobs right out of college? Probably…but I also don’t really give a f*ck (said, again, with full acknowledgment of my privilege to be able to do so).

I have mixed feelings on degrees in general, and especially ones that leave students so far in debt that pursuing jobs with high salaries becomes a necessity (especially when vital jobs like being a teacher or a social worker don't typically afford those salaries). But I do feel strongly that, as a society, we need to work on expanding our definition of what success can look like. We need to encourage young people to explore and experiment and pursue what makes them feel most fulfilled, while still being able to support themselves financially. Careers are long—and let’s remember that head starts and early specialization don’t always help you get ahead or make you happiest.

Life doesn’t need to be a race to the top and work doesn’t need to be a path to the most money (unless that’s what you which case, go for it!). My own personal biggest takeaway from reading the report is that learning should be in service of what you want it to be in service of.

And that’s exactly what we’re trying to do with the learning experiences we offer at Starling—help you achieve success...whatever that might mean to you.



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