Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Murray on Testing Out Of College

Charles Murray has an instict for disruptive ideas. In yesterday's Wall Street Journal, he had an editorial entitled "For Most People, College is a Waste of Time" in which he argued that the BA should be almost universally dropped as a job qualification and that instead there should be developed a set of comprehensive national tests (not national as in government administered, but nationally recognized like the CPA exam) in various subjects which would show to what degree people actually possessed skills or knowledge in certain areas.
The merits of a CPA-like certification exam apply to any college major for which the BA is now used as a job qualification. To name just some of them: criminal justice, social work, public administration and the many separate majors under the headings of business, computer science and education. Such majors accounted for almost two-thirds of the bachelor's degrees conferred in 2005. For that matter, certification tests can be used for purely academic disciplines. Why not present graduate schools with certifications in microbiology or economics -- and who cares if the applicants passed the exam after studying in the local public library?

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.

The incentives are right. Certification tests would provide all employers with valuable, trustworthy information about job applicants. They would benefit young people who cannot or do not want to attend a traditional four-year college. They would be welcomed by the growing post-secondary online educational industry, which cannot offer the halo effect of a BA from a traditional college, but can realistically promise their students good training for a certification test -- as good as they are likely to get at a traditional college, for a lot less money and in a lot less time.

Certification tests would disadvantage just one set of people: Students who have gotten into well-known traditional schools, but who are coasting through their years in college and would score poorly on a certification test. Disadvantaging them is an outcome devoutly to be wished.
As with many disruptive ideas, this one has a lot of interesting elements, but it's hard to see how one gets there from here. One of the senses in which I consider myself a conservative is that it seems to me that large institutions (among which I would class our country's education and business infrastructures and cultures) do not tend to move in starkly new directions unless there is some sort of total collapse and rebuilding involved -- and total collapses are generally to be frowned upon.

Still, perhaps such a thing could be backdoored in, beginning rather like the GRE or G-MAT as something taken after college, but allowing those without an undergraduate degree to take it as well. Perhaps if it gained respect over time, the bachellor's degree would fade in importance compared to the tests.

However, I found myself thinking while reading the article that employers do not really treat the BA as a measure of competance anyway, except in a few fields such as engineering or if you're going on to get a graduate degree in the same topic. Even for a first job out of college one is invariably asked about experience: Show me something you've written. Do you have any examples of programs you've written? What's a site that you've designed? Describe an example of a situation in which you took leadership. Describe a time when you provided excellent customer service. Etc.

And most cynically of all: College is partly a way of keeping people under 22 out of the full time work force, while trying to encourage them to develop the ability to schedule their own time, work hard and live on their own. Sure it's silly to demand a BA or BS for many of the jobs for which it is listed as a requirement, but in many ways it's just a shorthand for: "We'd like somoene 22 or over with some degree of adult responsibility and work ethic."

Still, its a fascinating idea, and it makes me curious to read Murray's forthcoming book.

4 comments:

Jason said...

One thing that a college degree does show (which isn't directly identified) is this:

"Ok kid. Here's a long term, valuable goal. It'll take you 3+ years to get there, and you'll have some fun, and it'll bust your butt as well. Go get it."

it shows that someone CAN go and stick to a goal for 3-6 years and finish something, which is valuable in the work place.

(and Engineering does have a certification program for most disciplines... it's the Engineer in Training (EIT) and the Professional Engineer (PE) exams.

--Jason

discalcedyooper said...

Are you familiar with MCSE (and other) 5- and 10-day bootcamps?

ISTM that college has largely replaced what used to be called training. This makes the idea of certification tests sound appealing since they can establish if you have had specific training rather than knowledge. For an idea of the difference, compare the time it takes a college CS major without previous experience to learn how to work on an OS/400 system versus your typical Microsoft tech school grad.

ForCerts said...

My dad and my husband have both been turned down for jobs there were most certainly qualified to do just because they didn't have a college degree. And refused even to be interviewed for many more for the same reason!

I'm all for certification!

Bob the Ape said...

And most cynically of all: College is partly a way of keeping people under 22 out of the full time work force, while trying to encourage them to develop the ability to schedule their own time, work hard and live on their own. Sure it's silly to demand a BA or BS for many of the jobs for which it is listed as a requirement, but in many ways it's just a shorthand for: "We'd like someone 22 or over with some degree of adult responsibility and work ethic."


Fair enough. Can we find some way to do this that doesn't cost thousand of dollars a year?