College-educated workers in America are less likely to be engaged at work than their less-educated peers. And that's a sign of a serious problem in the country's higher education system, as well as a troublesome point for the future of the economy, according to a new Gallup poll.
The majority of American workers with a college degree said they do not have "the opportunity to do what [they] do best every day" at work, a survey of more than 150,000 adults found. Overall, the majority of American workers said they are either "not engaged" or "actively disengaged" at work. Only 30 percent said they feel engaged.
"We have either too few jobs for college grads in general, or too many degrees misaligned with the jobs available in the workplace," said Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education, in a blog post.
Researchers based the engagement findings on workers' assessments of different workplace elements related to performance outcomes, such as productivity, customer service, quality, retention, safety and profit.
For those with a high school diploma or less, about 33 percent said they felt engaged. But as workers climbed up the educational ladder, they became increasingly more likely to report feeling the opposite.
Just more than 50 percent of workers who completed technical school or had some college education said they do not feel engaged at work, meaning they are satisfied with their workplace but are not emotionally connected to it. Another 20 percent said they were "actively disengaged," meaning they are "emotionally disconnected" from their work and workplace and jeopardize their team's performance, the survey says.
College graduates were less likely to say they feel engaged at work, with about 28 percent giving a positive answer. And although that percentage increased slightly for those who moved on to postgraduate education, up to 30.1 percent, the number is still lower than those with a high school education or less.
The findings reinforce a common criticism of the American higher education system: colleges are not preparing students for the types of jobs they want or need. "If Americans are judging the colleges they choose based on whether they can get good jobs, they may be better off not choosing college at all," Busteed said.
Several studies have shown that college graduates are becoming increasingly underemployed, despite society's insistence that getting a college education will benefit them later on.
A 2012 poll from Gallup and the Lumina Foundation found that half of recent graduates have jobs that do not require a college degree. And earlier this year, the Center for College Affordability and Productivity painted a grimmer picture. Nearly half of all college graduates, not just recent graduates, held relatively low-paying and low-skilled jobs in 2010, the center's study found.
But it's not just recent graduates who report feeling disengaged at work. The Gallup poll surveyed American workers of all ages in several different occupations. The results were the same across all ages and occupations – college-educated workers are less likely to find their jobs fulfilling.
The implications of having a less-engaged workforce are significant, the survey says.
"As workplace engagement is itself a key to economic growth, a workforce with so many highly educated workers who are either not engaged or actively disengaged is bad for the U.S. economy," the survey says.
Finding a solution to disengagement is important not just to the economy, but also to the educational system, according to the survey.
"The implications of this are so profound that it will literally change everything in higher education," Busteed said. "From rethinking what its ultimate purpose should be, to the very basics of how we teach, coach, mentor, and develop learners."