A startling figure cropped up the other day in news reports about college admissions. It was noted that of the nearly 3 million of those expected to graduate from high school this year, two-thirds would be looking for space in an institution of higher learning.

What that says about the national ability to produce a labor force capable of competing in today’s world economy is downright scary.

In the process of making college not only a necessity but also about the only avenue left to achieve even part of the American dream, we are without question overeducating a large number of very ordinary minds who are then too expensive for the common jobs. If that sounds outrageously elitist, so be it. Increasingly, this leaves us with no one to accomplish the everyday tasks of living except the thousands of immigrants, most of them illegal, who haunt the parking lots of convenience stores looking for any opportunity to make a dollar, from digging ditches to painting houses.

Now there are those in Congress who want to deprive the nation of these honest toilers, without whom few everyday tasks would be accomplished. While we can outsource some jobs to India or wherever, we can’t operate our restaurants or pick our tomatoes or mow our lawns or build our streets and roads from overseas.

The crush of college applications also dramatically emphasizes the obvious decline in the nation’s heavy and light industries, and the part that excessive wages have played in that. There are few steel-mill assignments and declining auto jobs and, in the manufacturing plants that survive, technology has increased productivity at the expense of full-time employees. There are few family farms, and agribusiness is so mechanized that the cultivation of huge tracts of land and the milking of large herds can be accomplished with only a farmhand or two.

So what happens to Johnny and Susie when they receive that high-school diploma? They have limited choices, most of them in the service industry, or they head for college where they hope to escape the drudgery and deprivation of a life spent flipping burgers. That, of course, is a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much.

We are now being told that there are so many applications for college that even a perfect score on an SAT won’t assure one of a place in the Ivy League, where a decline in the percentage of acceptances is expected to continue for some time. It is a manufactured problem for a slow news day, however, because there are a huge number of first-rate institutions where that isn’t the case. Also, statistics show that an undergraduate degree from any of these schools means about the same in terms of earning potential 20 years later as does a B.A. or a B.S. from Harvard or Yale or Princeton.

Of course, if one gets a legitimate perfect score on the SAT and is still denied admission to the college of choice, the test is as worthless, as many have begun to think it is. That would be particularly true for someone applying from a public high school, but not one of the expensive prep schools with longtime ties to the colleges and universities at the top of the U.S. News & World Report list of best institutions.

My daughter recently inquired as to whether graduation with honors from Thomas Jefferson, a magnet high school of high national reputation in Fairfax County, Va., where merit scholars abound, would enhance her daughter’s chances of cracking the Ivy League or other elite schools. Not necessarily, said a recent graduate who was turned down by her first choices despite outstanding grades. The young lady said a Harvard representative who had visited assessed Jefferson’s reputation as not uniform among his school’s officials.

How about Choate or Exeter?

All this, of course, is academic. If the number of high-school graduates seeking college space continues to rise, it won’t be long before everyone will be competing for the same job, and the only chance one may have for making a living with anything less than a Ph.D. is lawn-mowing and ditch-digging. They may have to do that anyway if all the illegal immigrants are kicked out.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)