College: A Waste of Time?

Here’s an interesting (if not misguided) article from last week’s Wall Street Journal, “For Most People, College is a Waste of Time.”

Imagine that America had no system of post-secondary education, and you were a member of a task force assigned to create one from scratch. One of your colleagues submits this proposal:

First, we will set up a single goal to represent educational success, which will take four years to achieve no matter what is being taught. We will attach an economic reward to it that seldom has anything to do with what has been learned. We will urge large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability to try to achieve the goal, wait until they have spent a lot of time and money, and then deny it to them. We will stigmatize everyone who doesn’t meet the goal. We will call the goal a “BA.”

You would conclude that your colleague was cruel, not to say insane. But that’s the system we have in place.

The article continues:

Finding a better way should be easy. The BA acquired its current inflated status by accident. Advanced skills for people with brains really did get more valuable over the course of the 20th century, but the acquisition of those skills got conflated with the existing system of colleges, which had evolved the BA for completely different purposes.

Outside a handful of majors — engineering and some of the sciences — a bachelor’s degree tells an employer nothing except that the applicant has a certain amount of intellectual ability and perseverance. Even a degree in a vocational major like business administration can mean anything from a solid base of knowledge to four years of barely remembered gut courses.

The solution is not better degrees, but no degrees. Young people entering the job market should have a known, trusted measure of their qualifications they can carry into job interviews. That measure should express what they know, not where they learned it or how long it took them. They need a certification, not a degree.

Here’s the conclusion:

Most important in an increasingly class-riven America: The demonstration of competency in business administration or European history would, appropriately, take on similarities to the demonstration of competency in cooking or welding. Our obsession with the BA has created a two-tiered entry to adulthood, anointing some for admission to the club and labeling the rest as second-best.

Here’s the reality: 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.

Full article available here.

12 thoughts on “College: A Waste of Time?

  1. From what you’ve cited – and god forbid I go read the rest of it – I think it’s your typical pragmatic argument (dare I say, American through and through) and although clearly there’s a truth to it, it’s completely misguided in its perception of the role of education as an acquisition of certain skills… I do think that because most kids are expected to go to college, a lot of them are wasting time vis-a-vis acquiring a skill, but when did colleges become simple technical schools? yes, BA is probably a waste of time that a person could use making all that money and buying all that shit that everyone needs so desperately, but where’s the fun in it? is life really all about making money and getting ahead? Sorry for another highly affected comment – I suppose the coming of the freshmen in a couple of weeks and my attempts to explain to them that “this will probably be the best time you’ll have in life” puts me in the mood…

  2. A friend and I were just talking about something similar re: veterinary technicians. She raised a good point: If part of the concern is about class stratification, part of that concern should be related to who has what (financial) access to what resources (mostly universities, in the case of this article). If the BA/BS (speaking of which, I’m starting to wish I’d gotten my BS, instead of my BA, in philosophy, just for parties) was replaced by some sort of measurement of competency, that measurement would likely end up as some sort of exam process, and we’ve all seen the industry that has risen up around ACT, SAT, GRE, and TOEFL exams, with books and programs and tutors and videos and software each promising, for the right price, to get you a high score on the exam, which, from the perspective of class stratification, leaves us with the same problem – you have your best chance of succeeding if you have the financial resources to start with, and from the perspective of education leaves us with a bunch of people only qualified to pass tests. Sigh.

  3. Yes, I didn’t have time to comment on it substantively this morning, but I think your largely correct in your reaction, Mikhail. After I read I thought, ack, how praaaaaagmaaaaaaaatic. Higher education awards intellectual skills, which apparently aren’t pragmatic enough. By the way, economic rewards? Somebody should really let me know! Take this comment:

    Most important in an increasingly class-riven America: The demonstration of competency in business administration or European history would, appropriately, take on similarities to the demonstration of competency in cooking or welding.

    I actually like this sentence (though the overall context seems a bit misguided) because it takes us academics down a notch, recognizing what we do consists of a skill set (philosophizing no different than gardening etc). Yet, the author then goes onto tell us the “reality”–we all start as apprentices, no shit–I went to graduate school! Is that it? Rank? Pecking orders? Apprenticeships?

    At bottom, it goes back to what the college/university is actually for–getting a good job, training, or a marketplace of ideas, fostering a knowledgeable and critical populace etc (or is it simply a place to take interesting drugs and according to noveau dandy Tom Wolfe, have lots of careless sex).

    Khrushchev, Thanks for the comment. Yes, that’s a good point. Not to be too self-referential, but there was a related discussion here:

  4. Murray would agree, I think, that the majority of jobs don’t require any training beyond high school. So what good are the certificates then? Murray should know that if you start issuing certificates, then employers are going to start asking for certificates, and state licensing boards are going to require certificates. You won’t be able to walk a dog without a license. It will also destroy the idea of a liberal arts education. Pretty soon students are going to say “Is Twelfth Night on the certification exam?” I think this misses the point. Like many libertarians, Murray hates inefficiency and waste as much as any central planner. Same kind of economic thinking.

    Murray doesn’t ask himself why certificates haven’t caught on. There here are certificates in IT, for instance, but if you look at job listings in IT, employers explicitly say, we don’t want people with certificates, we want people with BAs. Why is that? Maybe somebody who’s completed a BA has demonstrated a willingness to pursue something that doesn’t have an immediate payoff, and that’s important to many employers.

  5. Also, Murray complains about how a Bachelors degree doesn’t demonstrate competence, what you learned. Neither would a certificate, unless every employer had a rubric of what ever certification tested. If the necessity to know such things ever became so pressing, it wouldn’t be that hard to ask for an academic transcript. I even think I’ve heard of such a practice: applying to grad-school.

  6. Khrushchev, wouldn’t we then eventually arrive at… college? I mean all the tests, tutors, textbooks, places to keep them, fees and all = college, but less flexible and more expensive? I agree with you on the industry of testing – anyone who ever dealt with any test (choose your combination of capital letters) knows that it’s mainly very “cheatable” if you have the money and time to study the system – it reminds me of students who spend more time plagiarizing and then covering it up then it would have taken them to sit down and write the damn thing…

    Bjk/Joe, if college was about some simple skill-acquisition process, then I expect that many more of my students would be failing it now and ending up bagging groceries at Safeway. I think what people like Murray don’t see is the simple fact that were today’s college converted to some strict certification system (an idiotic positivist dream of calculating things like intelligence or even skills), then not as many kids would be able to attend college, or get through college – including the privileged assholes whose fathers, I am told, pay my salary. At the same time, if there was a system of entrance exams (yes, yes, just like it is in Russia, the best place on earth) and specific vocations (not necessarily so-called vocational schools) as in knowing exactly what your major will be and following a defined curriculum versus choosing your own path (more required courses for majors, less “electives”), then, I think, American colleges will “matter” in terms of skills required for “real jobs” – but then again I think the whole issue of letting kids decide which classes to take and stuff is something I will never understand – how can these youngsters know what the hell they want to study if it’s up to them? – again, not looking forward to advising this year and the incoming freshmen, reminds me too much of that conversation between George and Jerry about what kind of job George should pursue now that he is unemployed…

  7. Mikhail,

    No, I understand this to be the more basic absurdity of the article. My point was that Murray’s complaint about how a BA does or doesn’t factor into an employer’s decision isn’t even all that sound compared to what he suggests as a more desirable alternative. When you get down to it, the grades themselves, unless accompanied by a tedious rubric that decodes them, don’t really tell you any more about what has been learned, demonstrated or whatever. Clearly, the point of a liberal education is not to accumulate a bunch of skills, though skills and their acquisition have their place (mostly in primary school, to a lesser extent in secondary school, and at vocational colleges). What Murray doesn’t address is that a BA is already, from Murray’s perspective, a bunch of little certifications. The alternative – something like Evergreen – probably doesn’t fit into his scheme either because it’s not quantifiable. Ironically, it’s the attempt to quantify what happens in the classroom that obscures it.

  8. Murray’s point is that promoting and in many cases requiring college does active harm to people who are not suited to college, primarily people under about a 105 IQ. You can say that’s a positivist fantasy, but requiring that somebody go to college for 4 years in order to a do a job that requires at most a high school degree is a case of the high IQ people rigging the system in their favor (in Murray’s opinion, and I agree). Murray’s ideal solution is what the military does, give an IQ test and then slot to a job category. The certificate is a proxy for the IQ test. I don’t think that’s a good solution, but I do think he identifies a real problem.

  9. So to sum up, we’re already running a certification game, but what we’re certifying is largely unclear; if we had real rigorous standards, higher education’s client base and therefore higher education would contract dramatically; the whole thing is being paid for by grafting technical certification programs onto a loss-leading liberal arts ‘core’. And eggheads benefit from this by having jobs and suffer from it by having those jobs involve wrestling with nitwits, not to mention the smarter tech seekers who resentfully understand only too well that we’re running a scam on them. Who then graduate and become bitter neo-cons devoted to knocking us down a peg with ponderous assessments programmes.


  10. Well said Carl. As this is an “assessment semester” here on my humble campus mandated by those bitter neo-cons (they call it OA–fancy) who know nothing about philosophy I am trying to negotiate a tidal wave of shit. How are we supposed to assess a discipline that is essentially without content? I mean really. Philosophy is at bottom a matter of the learning and subsequent deployment of analytic, interpretive, and critical abilities. The aim of edumacation in our philosophy courses is not and really, should not be simply to deposit information, but it is to get our students learn to understand a variety of puzzling intellectual problems, interpret texts that deal with such problems, to analyze and criticize arguments in such texts, and really, to get our students to express themselves–spoken or written- in order to clarify and reflect on these problems. When I say this I’m met by blank stares, and no kidding, one response was “Well, wouldn’t you need to test the students on free will.”

    Er…what? Keep on running the oblique certification program, I suppose.

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