President's Blog

Over-qualification, a dangerous term

Thanks to Spain’s Fundación CYD and the Conference of University Presidents, I moderated a panel yesterday at a conference on the employability of college graduates in the headquarters of Banco Santander. The issue is of particular importance in Spain, where unemployment has soared since the onset of the 2008 crisis.

The press has payed much attention to the growing unemployment of university graduates, as well as to the growing number of graduates in jobs that are below their academic qualification.  This has led many to argue whether Spain may have a problem of “over-qualification”.  Yesterday’s conference was no exception.  I was shocked by how central the concept was in many of the discussions.

The words we use to describe problems carry great consequence.  They help make sense of the causes of a problem and they frame how we think of potential solutions.  By describing the mismatch between supply and demand for high-value-adding jobs as a problem of “over-qualification” one is left to wonder whether universities are producing too many graduates or whether they are too well educated when they graduate.  That would be a very dangerous conclusion to reach.

Professor Francisco Pérez, head of the Valencia Institute of Economic Research (IVIE), presented data showing that while the unemployment of college graduates has indeed doubled as a consequence of the crisis, it is about half the unemployment of non-college grads. People with a university degree in Spain are far more likely to be employed, spend less time unemployed, make more money, and are far more likely to receive training than people without a degree.  The crisis has not reduced the need for a college degree, it has exacerbated it.  According to IVIE, the correlation between academic achievement and unemployment was near zero in 1987 and is near perfect now.

And, while there is indeed a significant number of graduates who are performing jobs that are technically below their qualifications, those numbers can be greatly explained by the graduates’ performance on some critical skills, like mathematical acumen.

Spain has made huge strides in tertiary education participation in recent decades (as I discussed here recently), yet it still lags the OECD average.  Graduates don’t do well in comparative assessments of quantitative skills.  And the Spanish style of education does not favor the development of communication, leadership, teamwork, entrepreneurship and global mindset skills that employers tell us are essential for professional success.

Spain’s problem is not that it has too many, too well-educated graduates.  It should invest far more, not less in higher education, both in continuing its progress towards greater participation and in improving the quality of the education it provides.

While different, these discussions resonate with ongoing debates in the U.S. about the value of a college degree.  Individuals, cities, regions and countries would be ill-advised to listen to the voices that question the value of education.  In the knowledge economy of the 21st century, economic prosperity is tied squarely to human talent. Nothing more. Stop investing in education at your own peril.