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Does Going to College Make You a Better Waitress?

Posted on June 28th, 2011, by Leave a comment

Of the two studies that made a big splash on Monday, I basically agree with the Brookings one, but think it is highly misleading, whereas I disagree with some of the Carnevale and Rose study, but think it is a solid study that significantly advances debate on an important issue.

One of the reasons I disagree with Carnevale and Rose’s conclusion is our different answer to the following question: Does going to college make you a better waitress? This may seem like a silly question, but it is actually quite important when determining if we need more college grads or not.

First, a little background to bring you up to date. The Bureau of Labor Statistics collects data on the labor force and jobs in the country. They also release data on the number of people holding jobs with certain educational attainment levels, classified by the education needed to perform the job (as determined by the BLS).

Some people consider the BLS classifications of educational requirements by job accurate, and are worried about malemployment (jobs held by over- and under- educated people). A good example is the study my boss and a few colleagues recently released arguing that 17 million college grads were working “high school” level jobs.

Other people think the BLS classifications aren’t accurate enough. They point out that even within the same job category, college grads earn more than high school grads, meaning that they aren’t really properly classified as high school jobs. A good example here is the recent Carnevale and Rose study:

Even when the titles are the same, the actual job tasks are different and even when the job tasks are very similar, workers with a Bachelor’s degree often prove themselves to be more valuable to their employers…

Unless we concede that employers are paying more to some than to others for the same skill sets—an irrational economic action—it becomes clear that workers with a Bachelor’s degree are able to translate their added skills into higher pay…

In other words, just because a college grad takes a “high school” job doesn’t mean that college was a waste. This is a very good point, and I’m sympathetic to Carnevale and Rose’s concern that some portion of the jobs the BLS classifies as high school jobs are legitimately classified as college jobs, but I think they oversell this argument quite a bit.

The reason I find this argument unconvincing is found in table 3 (on page 29), which shows large premiums for college grads relative to high school grads in a variety of jobs. For example, the table shows that waiters and waitresses with a bachelor’s degree earn 34.3% more than waiters and waitresses with only a high school education. Since restaurants won’t pay you more unless you’re worth it, college educated waitresses must be more productive, and Carnevale and Rose interpret this to mean that going to college makes one a better waitress.

While I suppose it’s possible, I am skeptical that going to college makes you a third more productive as a waiter. I’ve done my time in the food service industry, in just about every position, and I’ve done my time in higher ed, in just about every position, and I really don’t see how attending college would make you one a better waitress.

So why do college educated wait staff make 34.3% more? I don’t know for sure, but I can think of a number of plausible explanations that have nothing to do with college making them more productive:

  • College educated waitresses may be overrepresented among expensive restaurants (waitress income is highly dependent upon the prices charged by restaurant). This could be due to college grads clustering in urban areas (where restaurant meals are more expensive), or if they edge out the competition for other reasons (see next bullet).
  • College educated waitresses are likely younger and skinnier, both of which increase income among waitresses.
  • College grads without kids might work a disproportionate share of night and weekend shifts (which are busier) that wait staff with kids avoid.
  • And of course, the old signaling/sorting standby – the kinds of people who go to and graduate from college are likely more productive to being with.

Meanwhile, the only plausible reason that I can think of for why college would make you a more productive waitress – that college grads learn to be dependable, how to work in teams, to show up on time, be conscientious, etc. – doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Anyone who’s in the labor force for 4-6 years will learn those things too, at least to a sufficient degree to work as a waitress.

Thus, I am much more comfortable classifying waitressing as a high school job than Carnevale and Rose, who would presumably be more comfortable having separate classifications for high school waitress jobs and college waitress jobs.

My concern is that if we move from classifying the educational requirements of jobs from the characteristics of the job to the characteristics of the worker, we will basically end up calling any job a college grad gets a college level job. This would mean that it is impossible to have too many college graduates. The problem with that, of course, is that it is possible to have to many college graduates. Just ask recent law school or English Ph.D graduates.