Friday, August 15, 2008

"College is a Waste"

It's rewarding when the contention you've long asserted--that the college degree is America's most overrated product--makes it to the lead editorial in the Wall Street Journal. This op-ed by Charles Murray appeared yesterday.


Okie said...

I like the idea of a certification test rather than the standard BA. It reminds me of an experience during the tech boom. I was going to become an MS Access expert. However, my intuition, which some call negative thinking, told me that I would never be a techie. I did self-study plus had extensive one-on-one tutoring. I took the test MS certification test twice and scored a 50 each time. I never became an MS Access expert. After applying for a federal job for 17 years, I finally landed a position as a propagandist in 2007. By the way, I have a BA in communications and political science from a state school.

Anonymous said...

So I just read this article. Interesting read.

Murray's idea is to get rid of the bachelor's degree and to replace it with a certificate earned through tests. The model he cites is the CPA exam, where reportedly the pass rate is less than 50%, and where prospective employers can see both whether you passed and the detailed breakdown of scores. Hmm.

This line by Murray, which ends the article, got my attention:

"Everyone in every occupation starts as an apprentice. Those who are good enough become journeymen. The best become master craftsmen. This is as true of business executives and history professors as of chefs and welders. Getting rid of the BA and replacing it with evidence of competence -- treating post-secondary education as apprenticeships for everyone -- is one way to help us to recognize that common bond."

In my opinion, that's as it should be.

Not that this is a perfect solution. There would still be people that cheat on the test, people that will call the test unfair if they can't pass and blame it on insensitivity to whatever group they belong to, and employees getting hired for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with their ability to get the job. Also, people will still want to attend college just to learn, not to gain a skill. Even so, it just might work better than what we have going now.

So Mr. Nemko, guess who didn't agree? One of your friends at the Chronicle.

Laurie Fendrich did not agree at all with Murray, and neither did most of the people commenting on her blog. She doesn't fail to mention that Murray co-authored "The Bell Curve," which he will never live down and immediately got readers on her side. She says, among other things, that "Murray fails to see that his system would do nothing to stave off elitist privilege." Also, in mentioning the book "Rise Of The Meritocracy," she seems to be indirectly saying that she believes meritocracy is a bad thing.

I know nothing will change as a result of this op-ed piece, but I'm interested in seeing what might happen if a nationwide discussion did begin about the necessity of a college degree. What would people say?

Grace said...

This is a moral dilemna.

I work at a vocational college where impoverished single mothers have been sold the idea that a college education is worth the tremendous debt. This with no guarantee of a job. It has been a hard product for me to sell, for if I were an employer, I would take someone with proven self-management and problem solving skills over someone with a piece of paper any day. When coaching the students, I tell them they create their own opportunities, and a diploma won't help them if they won't help themselves.

I liked going to university because I had a good time. I met my husband there. I value it for the experience it was, but it didn't offer me career advancement.

I once thought about returning to school and getting my masters.
Not anymore.

Marty Nemko said...

My Dear Grace,

I would imagine you're a good counselor, offering as much help as they're getting for their courses. I hope you might steer them to the career advice on my website:

Grace said...

Yes, of course, Mr. Nemko.

I only stumbled upon your site about 6 months ago when I was looking for career articles to post on a bulletin board. I refer my students to your website, though I sometimes feel bad when I show them "Cool Careers for Dummies" because they've already just paid a fortune for a very specific education and I honestly don't want to tell them, "Well, have other options." (Although I do tell them that when it is necessary.)

Serge said...

The idea of using certifications is a fine one, when it comes to training specialties like accounting, nursing or computer engineering.

However, I believe, there is a distinction between "training" & a "[well-rounded] education". The later cannot be easily assessed by standardized test, and, ideally, has to involve a sustained, interactive relationship between the professor & the student.

Of course, it's also true that many undergraduates aren't able or willing to interact with their professors in enriching ways, and sometimes professors & TAs are themselves unable or unwilling to interact with students. That, combined with the 5-6 figure cost of a Bachelors degree, explains why it might not be neither a good career investment nor an enriching experience.

I do believe education, while difficult to measure, can be obtained without a degree. Especially in the age of Internet, when the entire world can be perceived as one giant interactive classroom. While there is much infantilism and non-sense, there are many deep discussions on the web, deeper than in many philosophy classes on campus. Also there are many high-quality recorded lectures that might be found in your local library from such fine publishers as The Teaching Company:

The point I want to reiterate though is that liberal education cannot be tested, unlike trades, through a test, since there could be more than one right answer, or no answer at all, to the life's deeper questions.

Anonymous said...

The problem with trying to give everybody a liberal education, when they're 18, is that 18 is much too late. If you want them to learn about the Greeks, the Romans, history etc., the time to start is in elementary school, when linguistic ability is plastic and children can still be interested in giant dragons, monsters, gods and wizards (think Bullfinch's mythology).