"I can't leave now. I don't want to waste the 50 grand I paid for my master's degree."
Susan mulled over her second-year experience at a large consulting firm. She was hardly experiencing flow, but didn't despise her job either. When I pressed further, she maintained a steely resolve: "Be damned if I'm going to quit the job I spent my entire school life trying to get, at the firm all of my classmates wanted to break into." Perennially caught between the dream of pursuing her true passions and the responsibility of generating a direct return on her education, she once again decides to grin and bear her current role.
In researching Passion & Purpose, I met many talented young professionals boasting unlimited potential but finding themselves handcuffed in low-impact, high-paying corporate jobs. The limiting factor? Credential overhang. Defined simply, it's the perverse way in which our university schooling limits our career options, rather than enhancing them. If you're skeptical, then in the words of JoJo, here's some numbers: 58 percent of Millennials now have college degrees (compared to 36 percent of Boomers), driving total student loan debt past $1 trillion. As unemployment continues to hover around 8 percent and average college salaries remain stagnant (PDF), the unfortunate economic reality begins to take shape. We're now literally unable to put our credentials to work.
Student debt is hardly a new phenomenon, but the negative impact of over-credentialing on our professional lives has never been greater. Here's why:
1. Rising debt cripples our career choices. Feel a slight pang of terror as you access your end-of-month loan balance? You're not alone. As college tuition continues to surge, more of us are forced to turn our careers into financial equations. One interviewee lamented: "I wouldn't have done an MBA if I knew about the economic baggage and what I'd need to earn after graduation." He may be disappointed but shouldn't be surprised. As it turns out, the number one career regret we face is taking a job for the money. Although external accreditation can open doors, the sheer cost of those same credentials are inhibiting the pursuit of individually meaningful careers.
2. We suffer from Rubber Stamp Syndrome. Today's university looks more like well-oiled corporation instead of a socially valuable academic institution, as we continue to demand degrees in droves. One business school professor actually quipped to his students, "You're not the customer, you're the product." As social affirmation theory predicts, we yearn for the external validation that degrees and certificates confer. But following the herd into school and funneling off into supposedly desirable companies afterwards can be a strategy that eventually leads to a profound sense of professional emptiness. Voice laced with regret, one individual said, "I feel like I've lived my whole life on guardrails." Remarked another: "I want to stop doing what I should be doing and start doing what I want to do."
3. We make career moves based on ever-increasing sunk costs. As any microeconomist will tell you, there is no surer path to bad outcomes than incorporating retrospective expenses that cannot be recovered into your decision making. But as the cost of accreditation rises, the temptation to "use" our degrees and certificates to land high-paying (but ultimately dissatisfying) jobs has never been greater. The more credentials you have, the worse the problem gets. One interviewee remarked, "I've done a bachelor's degree in accounting, a master's in accounting, and a certificate of public accounting. I can't just leave accounting." Another said, "I think of my degree firstly as a cash-generating device." By force fitting your past education into your current vocation, you're incorrectly counting sunk costs and might be closing doors to exciting professional paths as a result.
If any of these traps sound familiar, you can take two steps forward. First, eliminate your debt load. Huge student loan balances can cause suboptimal career decisions in the long run, so do everything you can to get out of the red as quickly as possible. Then, once you're above water, change your mind-set toward credentials. Instead of mindlessly following the well-worn path into the next prestigious program, see whether alternative forms of learning and experience, like online classes or internships, can get you to your goals. When individuals from even the most traditional backgrounds focus on mastery, rather than accumulated awards, they feel liberated. And when all's said and done, if you still see true value in a credential, then chase it. But let it broaden your professional life instead of bogging you down.
This post was originally published on HBR.org.