How many college graduates is the United States going to need in the next few decades in order to maintain its current economic status?

Predictions like these are notoriously difficult to do with any real precision, but many pundits (and, apparently, President Obama) are taking seriously the recent projections of Anthony Carnevale and colleagues at Georgetown University. The Georgetown projections indicate that, with current levels of academic success continue, the United States will be 3 million college graduates short in 2018.

Is that right? Perhaps more importantly, is that wrong?

According to a piece by Paul Harrington and Andrew Sum in the New England Journal of Higher Education, the Georgetown predictions are wrong. As they explain:

Instead, after a careful review of their data and methods, we find that the Georgetown authors radically overstate the size of the college labor market and, in the process, ignore perhaps the most pressing problem facing college graduates in the nation today—malemployment. A concept used by Frederick Harbison in his 1973 book titled Human Resources and the Wealth of Nations, malemployment represents the inability of a college graduate to find a job that effectively uses the knowledge, skills and abilities acquired in college and relegates them to employment in low-skill and generally low-wage occupations that don’t utilize college-level proficiencies. Since the skills of the malemployed remain largely unused by employers, they experience considerable wage losses.

The problem, according the article, has to do with what Georgetown seems to categorize as jobs that require college education. The prediction relies on what Georgetown calls the “college labor market.” Harrington and Sum explain that, “the Georgetown measure of the college labor market includes all employed college graduates, irrespective of the occupation in which they are employed.”

This means that demand for jobs in which some people have degrees are thought to require college degrees. This means that anyone who is currently overqualified for their job is not removed from future labor projections. If 20 percent of waiters have bachelor’s degrees, 20 percent of future waiters then need bachelor’s degrees. That’s perhaps a little odd, but it’s not really wrong.

It’s not “right” either. The true accuracy of any of this is debatable. Harrington and Sum compare being a bartender to being a compensation and benefit manager, pointing out that “the English language and math skill requirements for this occupation are considerably higher than those for bartenders and the occupation requires a high degree of specific knowledge of human resource principles and procedures.”

Well yes, but the profession “compensation and benefit manager” doesn’t actually require a college degree. By some measures paper pushing jobs like that are also forms of malemployment. Do those four courses the compensation and benefit manager took in philosophy help much when Rebecca over in Development needs to know how many vacation days she’s got left? Well no.

In fact, many, many professional jobs don’t “utilize college-level proficiencies.” Harrington and Sum write that “the higher education community should seek innovative strategies to reduce the very real problems of unemployment and malemployment that plague college graduates today.”

Sure, that might be a great idea. But let’s leave the philosopher bartenders out of this.

Predictions about the labor needs of the future are often metaphors (albeit very scientific ones) about the need for better-educated people. Let’s put this in perspective. Part of what makes the American economy relatively strong, in a global sense, has to do with innovation and initiative. These are precisely the things that higher education promotes.

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