Richard Vedder, an economist at Ohio University who’s very, very interested in proving that college is overrated, has an fascinating new piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He’s created a fun new chart that seems to prove that, yes, too many people are going to college. As he writes:

Two sets of information have dramatically reinforced my feeling that diminishing returns have set in to investments in higher education, with increasing evidence suggesting that we are in one respect “overinvesting” in the field.

Over 317,000 waiters and waitresses have college degrees (over 8,000 of them have doctoral or professional degrees), along with over 80,000 bartenders, and over 18,000 parking lot attendants. All told, some 17,000,000 Americans with college degrees are doing jobs that the BLS says require less than the skill levels associated with a bachelor’s degree.

Apparently the Bureau of Labor Statistics routinely publishes information about the degree attainment of people in various jobs. This information (check out the chart here) is very interesting, thinks Vedder: “The growing disconnect between labor market realities and the propaganda of higher-education apologists is causing more and more people to graduate and take menial jobs or no job at all.”

“More and more.” Oh really? While this 17 million looks like trouble, it’s actually not. He’s not going to be a parking lot attendant forever. Or a bartender. Or a telemarketer (well, okay, no one should ever be a telemarketer, but that’s maybe a different issue).

The reason for college is not and has never been merely to help people get a professional job and act as a driver of the economy. As one commentator writes “I hope that 17 million people went to college in the United States to secure our democracy. Call me old-fashion. Civic engagement is a most valuable net return on the college investment.”

Now it’s probably wrong to conclude that these numbers indicate that there’s some sort of precise alignment between college and the economy, but it’s also wrong to think there’s some sort of crisis from these numbers alone. These 17 million Americans are a reflection of the current state of the economy, not of any general trend toward too much college.

Just because he’s working as a waiter doesn’t mean he made a mistake in going to college. Ask him. Does he think he made a mistake? When was the last time you met a waiter in urban America who didn’t go to college? And how long did he remain a waiter? [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer