For Most People, College Is a Waste of Time

For Most People, College Is a Waste of Time

August 13, 2008; Page A17

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.

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

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.

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.

No technical barriers stand in the way of evolving
toward a system where certification tests would replace the BA.
Hundreds of certification tests already exist, for everything from
building code inspectors to advanced medical specialties. The problem
is a shortage of tests that are nationally accepted, like the CPA exam.

But when so many of the players would benefit, a
market opportunity exists. If a high-profile testing company such as
the Educational Testing Service were to reach a strategic decision to
create definitive certification tests, it could coordinate with major
employers, professional groups and nontraditional universities to make
its tests the gold standard. A handful of key decisions could produce a
tipping effect. Imagine if Microsoft announced it would henceforth
require scores on a certain battery of certification tests from all of
its programming applicants. Scores on that battery would acquire
instant credibility for programming job applicants throughout the

An educational world based on certification tests
would be a better place in many ways, but the overarching benefit is
that the line between college and noncollege competencies would be
blurred. Hardly any jobs would still have the BA as a requirement for a
shot at being hired. Opportunities would be wider and fairer, and the
stigma of not having a BA would diminish.

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.

Mr. Murray is the W.H. Brady Scholar at the
American Enterprise Institute. This essay is adapted from his
forthcoming book, "Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing
America’s Schools Back to Reality" (Crown Forum).

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