Random Thoughts on: The End of College?


A few bloggers have recently discussed college education. They, like me, seem dubious of the benefits. OneSTDV thinks it a bubble and a racket (but does offer advice), Ferdinand agrees.
[Update: Sept 10, 2010 Φ (Academy Watch) and Whiskey also have posts I did not orginally list]

I too have long thought college education was an expensive chore foisted on most people as a necessary condition of finding reasonable employment. So how do we change that? I have a plan. [Oh Oh!]

I believe that the majority of jobs should not need a four-year degree. Most require some on-the-job training but not a bachelor’s degree (or heaven forefend the now sometimes-sought master’s degree). In fact, most new graduates will still need on-the-job training when they take up their first post.

I suspect that reason employers demand such qualifications is that they act as a type of aptitude test. If you can complete college, you can probably fill the demands of the role. Four years is a very long, and expensive, aptitude test.

To gain admittance to a college you need to perform an aptitude test. That test usually one of the SAT or the ACT. Success on those tests supposedly predicts the potential for success at college.

My question is: why not cut out the middleman? If the SAT and ACT predict likely college success, and college success predicts likely job success, why not use the test scores themselves to make employment decisions. Why force students into a four-year, six-figure expense when you can just use the 3-hour and fifty dollar version.

Instead of presenting their four-year degree, a candidate would present their SAT or ACT score. That score would indicate that the person was capable of college. It is often the ability to complete college, and not necessarily the specific education, that the employer is looking for (the qualification is not always in a related field).

Employees no longer saddled which huge debts could afford to take a lower wage. They would have four more years of productive life. Employees would get capable employees four-years earlier than before. They would have a larger pool of potential candidates, as many capable of college cannot afford the time or money. There is no extra risk, as a successful student may not be a successful employee. It is not even clear that those extra four years add greatly to maturity, so the smart high-schooler may be no less mature than the college graduate.

This is another Random Thought in the Random Thoughts series of quickfire posts (more like comments than articles).


19 Responses to “Random Thoughts on: The End of College?”

  1. Bhetti Says:

    What, and make the education industry lose out and suffer in a recession too?

  2. Default User Says:

    At least those losing their jobs would have degrees.

  3. David Foster Says:

    Remember, there are EEO-lawsuit minefields surrounding the hiring process these days, and an employer can be vulnerable if he uses test results without being able to show that they have a clear relevance to the job. OTOH, the employer can also be vulnerable if he establishes educational credential requirements that are not relevant to the job: this one seems to be raised as an issue less frequently than the first one.

  4. Default User Says:

    @David Foster
    I was aware of the problems associated with aptitude/IQ tests and disparate impact (e.g., Griggs v Duke Power).

    While it is possible that the cut-out-the-middle man argument for using the SAT might get past that, I have to assume that my plan has little chance of ever seen the light of day.

  5. Tarl Says:

    Employers are not just looking for raw intelligence, but also conscientiousness and self-discipline. Merely taking a test or two does not demonstrate the latter qualities, but persisting with a long, demanding, and often boring course of studies does.

  6. dana Says:

    college=part of the cargo cult. college was fun in 50-60s, ergo college must be fun for everyone forever so everyone can have the exact same memories baby boomers had

  7. mrc Says:

    Employees with heavy debts are the equivalent today of male employees of the past who were married and had children, ie desirable because their commitments made them more dependent on their jobs, and therefore easier to squeeze. This was a common practice in the past, and no-one apologized for the thinking behind it.

  8. Default User Says:

    Good comments, all.

    Tarl: I agree on the conscientiousness part. Four years and tens of thousands of dollars still seem like a particularly arduous test of said trait. Hiring a new employee will always be risky, even with qualifications they can turn out to be bad.

    Dana: There is no doubt an element of boomer wistfulness and nostalgia. For others it is the baleful call of universalism (every one an Einstein).

    mrc: I can see that for some, debt-indentured could be seen as a feature not a bug. I suppose it is similar to H-1b indentured, and skipped across-the-Mexican-border indentured.

  9. David Foster Says:

    Selecting the right people to hire is a very difficult art. It is tempting to create long checklists of desired “features”, somewhat analogous to the requirements lists that are created by many people (especially women, it seems) for prospective mates. I address some of the potential traps in this approach in my post about the hunt for the five-pound butterfly.

  10. Default User Says:

    @David Foster
    Your article is spot on.

    As you said, selecting people is more of an art. Your gut can lead you astray just as fast as over-detailed checklists. I like the comparison to overly choosy women. Both they and the overly checklisted employer may end up alone or with a bad-boy chosen in desperation.

    If they are to use checklists, it should be part of a monitoring process: you review employee performance and see what traits the good ones had and what traits did not reflect on performance.

    Many employers need a filter to reduce the pool of candidates to a reasonable number. I suppose the checklist is part of that. Of course, a checklist is easy to automate with keyword filters, etc.

    Finally, a checklist can also provide cover for those unfortunate (but all too possible) bad choices. A manager can point to the departing employee having met the checklist.

  11. dream puppy Says:

    SD is right, the higher education industry is a racket, especially the for profit schools.

    The problem is quite multi-faceted, even if you just look at standard higher education. First, you have the Sally Mae student loans which are the only type of laws that are not forgiven during bankruptcy. You will have to pay them no matter what. They also charge exorbitant fees and interest. There is a great book called “The student loan scam.” that is worth a read if you are interested in this.

    Another issue is the idea that everyone needs to go to college. The only problem is that for everyone to attain a college education, the classes will have to be dumbed down so severely that a college degree means nothing anymore. Similar situation as a high school degree nowadays. So now people have to get Master’s. Cue Sally Mae. Again.

    Lastly, loose credit standards and “easy” money are making it way too easy for students to borrow. If students did not have access to all this credit, then prices would inevitably come down as no one would be able to “afford” college. However, why lower your prices when you can just put a whole generation in debt .

    One can also mention the pension system but that is a whole ‘nother can of worms.

    Great post!

  12. Default User Says:

    @dream puppy
    All good points.

  13. sdaedalus Says:

    i’ve never been mixed up with One STDV before, this is a first.

  14. Default User Says:

    I meant to ask dream puppy about that (but forgot to add it to my reply). I figured she meant to say “STDV” or something. Also it seems dream puppy is lost, as her blog no longer comes up.

  15. Linkage is Good for You: Diversity Edition (NSFW) Says:

    […] “Random Thoughts on: Labor“, “Random Thoughts: USA Beta Provider“, “Random Thoughts on: The End of College?“, “Bringing Style to Your Blog“, “In the Style of: Sibling of […]

  16. Mandy! XD Says:

    I honestly feel as though this could only be practical for individuals that are older and thus have gained job experience.

    Unless you get a useless degree, you know, something in women’s studies or something of the sort, your salary will increase while you’re in college.

  17. Default User Says:

    Education can be a seen as measure of human capital (e.g., smarts and conscientiousness) and an addition to it (the learned knowledge).

    There are returns to human capital: the smart, the industrious, the creative will always find reward. In many cases, the knowledge acquired during the four-year college stint will not add as much to the student’s human capital as four years on the job.

    The requirement for a college degree is often a proxy for personal human capital (smarts, conscientiousness, etc.) more than the knowledge component. Many professions will still require extensive on the job experience to reach a respectable level of competence.

    I think much of the returns to college education are actually returns to human capital (smarts, conscientiousness, etc.). In other words, graduates earn more because they started with higher human capital, not specifically, because they completed a degree.

    That said, I am not down on education and do realize that many professions need extensive knowledge before you can even start to acquire the on-the-job experience.

  18. brightstormyday Says:

    I just know this for a fact because my father’s slaved away at engineering for 40+ years and is a master at it. He taught himself. He still doesn’t make as much as college graduates.

  19. Default User Says:

    That is a shame.

    Sadly, employers do overlook many worthwhile individuals merely because the candidate lacks the correct qualification. I suppose that a listed qualification is a good, if imprecise, way of culling a pool of applicants.

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