Is College a Waste of Time?

August 13, 2008

Charles Murray writes that higher education in its current form is a waste of time. As an alternative, he suggests a system of certification exams:

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.

The model is the CPA exam that qualifies certified public accountants. The same test is used nationwide. It is thorough — four sections, timed, totaling 14 hours. A passing score indicates authentic competence (the pass rate is below 50%). Actual scores are reported in addition to pass/fail, so that employers can assess where the applicant falls in the distribution of accounting competence. You may have learned accounting at an anonymous online university, but your CPA score gives you a way to show employers you’re a stronger applicant than someone from an Ivy League school.

Certification tests need not undermine the incentives to get a traditional liberal-arts education. If professional and graduate schools want students who have acquired one, all they need do is require certification scores in the appropriate disciplines. Students facing such requirements are likely to get a much better liberal education than even our most elite schools require now.

Certification tests will not get rid of the problems associated with differences in intellectual ability: People with high intellectual ability will still have an edge. Graduates of prestigious colleges will still, on average, have higher certification scores than people who have taken online courses — just because prestigious colleges attract intellectually talented applicants.

But that’s irrelevant to the larger issue. Under a certification system, four years is not required, residence is not required, expensive tuitions are not required, and a degree is not required. Equal educational opportunity means, among other things, creating a society in which it’s what you know that makes the difference. Substituting certifications for degrees would be a big step in that direction.

I’m not sure I like this idea, mostly because college was a lot of fun. But I guess that’s kinda the point.

** With this post I’m creating a new blog category: “status quo bias.” In my opinion, we are averse to new and different ideas because they are new and different — they challenge the status quo. That doesn’t mean they’re bad, though. If nothing else, it’s fun to think about “radical” ideas.**

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