In 1993, a small, collectible stuffed animal debuted at the World Toy Fair and set off a frenzy.

Beanie Babies became a household name. People the world over raced to secure each new release, mesmerized by the prospect these tiny stuffed animals would one day be worth big bucks.

At the height of the Beanie Baby craze, many of these plush toys were reselling for as much as 5 to 1000 times their retail value — or in the rare case of Princess the Bear, selling for $500,000.

The major driver of the hysteria was that Ty Inc. began retiring early editions. Collectors rushed to buy each new issue before it was retired, or before stores sold out.

In other words, the manufactured scarcity — of limited supply — created an inflated perception of worth.

But the hysteria would not last.

Degree Inflation - Beanie Babies

In the late 90s, Ty Inc. began flooding the market with new Beanies. Where Beanie Babies were once scarce, suddenly, anyone could get them.

Almost overnight, the resale value of Beanie Babies tanked. Many Beanies went from selling for a multiples of their retail value to selling for less than their original $5 purchase price.

Once Beanies were no longer rare, the resale prices crashed. Once everybody had a Beanie Baby — or could easily get one for cheap — the perceived valued plunged.

Degree Inflation

There are two parts of degree inflation that are important to understand.

First, inflation happens anytime something that was once scarce becomes non-scarce. When that item becomes non-scarce, it loses relative value.

Maybe you’ve seen this with the value of US dollars. As the money supply increases, dollars are worth less than they once were. It may look as if prices are sharply increasing, but in reality, this “increase in price” is bolstered by a rapid decline in the value of a dollar.

For example, it would require $233.13 in today’s dollars to purchase something priced $100 in 1990.

DALL·E 2024-02-11 10.26.35 - Create an image that illustrates the concept of inflation or the rapid increase of the US money supply. The image should depict a visual metaphor for

In the same way, part of the reason the perceived value of a college degree has declined dramatically is because they are no longer scarce. In fact, in the 1990s, approximately 21.3% of the US population had a college degree. By 2022, this rate had increased to nearly 38%.

But how exactly are they less valuable?

The second part of degree inflation is the downstream effect of more people obtaining degrees. When bachelor’s degrees are no longer scarce — when most job applicants have them — employers no longer deem them as a unique differentiator for job applicants.

In other words, if everybody has a degree, then employers must look for other ways to differentiate candidates.

The immediate impact of this was that many employers began raising the bar. Jobs that once listed “Bachelor’s Degree Required” changed to “Master’s Degree Required”.

Moving Goal Posts

Students (post-2008 financial crisis) who’d been told their whole lives to go to college and they’d live happily ever after got sold a false bill of goods. Instead of graduating college, many students now felt they needed to continue school to get a Master’s degree (or more) if they stood a chance on the job market.

But what’s worse than the degree inflation: from 1990 to 2020s, while job requirements increased in many industries, wages remained relatively stagnate and the cost of college ballooned nearly 300%.

Since 2008, the aggregate student debt in the US has nearly quadrupled.

…but worse than all of that, is the big lie: That college degrees were valuable in the first place.

Perception of Value

A degree holds no objective value. People like to pretend degrees have an intrinsic value. But they don’t.

You can’t sell your degree. You can’t collateralize it. You can’t put your degree up for sale in the same way you might your house or a car. You can’t have it appraised.

All you can do is hope. Hope that other people think your degree is worth the same (or higher) esoteric amount of value you’ve bestowed upon it.

At worst, the underlying financial value of your degree is a fantasy. At best, it’s worth the resale value of the paper it’s printed on.

A Tough Pill to Swallow

I know it’s a tough pill to swallow, but your degree is probably worth less than the average Beanie Baby.

At least, your degree by itself.

That’s because your degree isn’t the thing you think it is. It’s not some magical talisman that unlocks untold riches and the perfect life.

Your degree is just a piece of decorated paper.

In reality, you are the product. You are what makes a degree valuable or worthless. What you do with your life. Whether as a byproduct of your college experience or lack thereof.

You never needed a fancy piece of paper to become valuable.

You can do most — if not all — of the same things without a degree that you can with a degree (except refer to yourself as a legitimate college graduate).

You can land the same jobs. Work at the same companies. Make the same money.

At least, if you’re willing to put in the necessary amount of time, energy, effort, and financial investment.

In a world where most people have one, a degree won’t help you stand out. You’ve got to find other ways to do that.

You’ve got to make yourself scarce — your skills, your perspective, your experience, your network, your ability to create value.

That’s how you make yourself in-demand. Not by doing the same things everyone else does.

It’s simple really. Not easy. But simple.

If you’re willing to put in the effort, you can build a higher value signal than a college degree. In that sense, you can become your own credential. (And a credential that’s impervious to degree inflation, at that.)

Mitchell Earl
Post by Mitchell Earl
February 13, 2024
COO @DiscoverPraxis: I mentor young adults to take agency over their lives, careers, and money. | Career Bound Podcast | Author of Don't Do Stuff You Hate