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An Abandoned Aristocracy

Illustration by Samantha Takeda '27, a prospective Painting major at RISD and Illustrator for BPR

Why are you going to college?

Ask a panel of 18-year-olds that question, and you’re likely to get a wide variety of responses. Some might cite earnings data and describe the returns to various degrees. Others may lean on the fond memories of their parents, their desire to learn more about a particular field, or their urge to partake in a college lifestyle. These answers leave out perhaps the most important reason that young Americans seek advanced academic degrees: They offer a ticket to our society’s elite.

The yawning gap between the college-educated and those without a bachelor’s degree is one of the defining fault lines of American life. The non-college-educated earn less, live shorter lives, and are less likely to raise children in two-parent households. An increasing share of jobs require a college degree—not because the work is specialized, but because a BA (or BS) is a signaling mechanism that an employer can use as a proxy for a whole host of underlying character traits about a prospective employee. If an applicant has the wits and work ethic to complete a four-year degree, the thinking goes, they are likely to meet some baseline of competence and productivity. Those without a degree, on the other hand, have uncertain qualifications and are likely to be left out in the cold. 

That the American public has responded to this set of incentives is not seriously in question. Since 1970, the percentage of college-educated Americans has increased from 11 percent to 38 percent. The quantity of master’s degrees granted in the year 2020 was 258 percent higher than in 1970, and the quantity of PhDs was 193 percent higher. In some specialized post-graduate professions, the jumps have been even sharper. By almost all metrics, the number of Americans receiving a higher education has grown at an amazingly fast rate.

But if college is the gateway to joining the American elite, what happens if the number of newly minted college grads overwhelms society’s needs for the highly educated? In other words, what happens if young people spend time, effort, and money to achieve advanced degrees, only to be told that society has no plans to reward them for it?

Political scientist Peter Turchin coined the term “elite overproduction” to refer to a scenario in which a society produces more elites than spots for those elites. If the marginal benefit to being an elite is very high, then competition for elite spots can become very vicious. The “elite aspirants” left looking in from the outside feel understandably betrayed by society—and in seeking redress for their grievances, they may attempt to tear down the existing order at its roots and replace it with one that rewards them.  

According to Turchin, elite overproduction frequently presages societal collapse, from Ancient Rome to Czarist Russia. In the modern-day United States, the perils of elite overproduction are most clearly seen in the plight of a particular sort of university graduate—the highly-educated humanities major.

Since 1987, the quantity of humanities doctorates has climbed steadily. The picture is a little less clear for humanities master’s students, but “the number of master’s degrees conferred in 2015 was still higher than in every year from 1987 to 2007.” Has the academic job market welcomed this flourishing supply of highly educated humanities students? Not even slightly. The number of job postings for humanities academics has declined monotonically since 2008. Among those who can get jobs, nearly two-thirds work either part-time or without the possibility of achieving tenure.

Students have noticed. Many humanities professors now lament that demand for humanities courses has bottomed out—the brightest pupils have fled to greener pastures. With a glut in supply and a hole in demand, an entire generation of humanities MAs and PhDs has effectively found itself unemployable on favorable terms.  

As predicted by Turchin’s theory, many disaffected elite aspirants have turned toward the politics of radicalism, looking to reform society from the ground up. The two defining protest movements of the post-2008 world, 2011’s Occupy Wall Street and 2020’s Black Lives Matter, were disproportionately well-educated. Insofar as highly educated people tend to lean politically left, it should also not come as a surprise that they have steered institutions of the left toward their own ends. The Democratic Socialists of America, an organization that states in its mission statement that it desires to unite “the multiracial working class… in solidarity,” has demanded the total cancelation of all student debt—a policy that would function as a massive redistribution of wealth from the non-college-educated to their degree-holding peers. Not coincidentally, three-fourths of the organization’s membership holds at least a bachelor’s degree.

With respect to preventing future recurrences of elite overproduction, market forces can work in tandem with policy reforms to channel aspirants to areas of need while simultaneously making a college degree less necessary for a good standard of living. Most clearly, students are already shifting from oversupplied areas to undersupplied ones: The number of degrees awarded in Computer Science more than doubled from 2011 to 2021, while degrees in fields like English Literature and History decreased by a third. 

On the policy side, federal and state governments should discard college degree requirements for many entry-level government positions in favor of aptitude tests, as Pennsylvania has already done. Private employers should also be encouraged to test the knowledge and work ethic of applicants directly, rather than outsourcing the work to universities via credential. These changes should both reduce the future quantity of jilted elites and give the non-college-educated a better chance to climb the career ladder. But they would provide cold comfort to elite aspirants who have already spent time and money receiving their degrees, only to be told that society has no plans to reward them. What can be done to assuage them? Turchin suggests reducing the payoff to being an elite, relative to not being one—in other words, reducing inequality. In particular, policies that redistribute wealth from rich to poor, such as a steeper progressive tax and a corresponding rise in social programs, should narrow the gap between elite and non-elite. A resurgence in the strength of private-sector labor unions, which are currently at a historically low ebb, represents another way to bridge the chasm. If non-elites can thrive, then the sting of settling for something less prestigious than a professorship should be less painful in material terms, if not in spiritual ones. At bottom, solving the problem of elite overproduction means building a society in which being an elite is only one path to prosperity.