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High Time for a Change in Higher Education

Posted by on October 7, 2009

[This post was originally written for my employer’s blog, Show-Me Daily.]

Aristotle said that “Education is the best provision for old age,” and I believe that this insight applies to both of the common purposes for pursuing a college degree: investment in human capital and personal enrichment.

This piece in the Post-Dispatch discusses the gap in higher education completion between St. Louis and other metropolitan areas, as well as what is to be done about it. The St. Louis area is well below average, apparently, and this is unquestioningly seen in the article as a problem not of individual motivation, but of institutional provision for the disadvantaged. I will propose a third option not discussed by the author or likely considered by most readers of the piece: too many people are going to college with the intention of getting a bachelor’s degree.

This unpopular sounding idea consists of three insights, all of which are championed by Charles Murray, so I’ve embedded a video of him explaining his stance at the end of this post. The first insight is that you don’t need four years of coursework for any occupation — even doctors spend much of medical school in an internship. The second is that the one-size-fits-all approach of the four-year B.A. is remarkably inefficient in terms of adding value to individuals who are looking to invest in their employability by adding skills/knowledge that will signal to future employers their capabilities. The third is that the two common purposes for pursuing a B.A. should be, but typically are not, treated separately. Personal enrichment is a luxury that many — if not most — high school graduates cannot afford. On the other hand, investing in their own future productivity is great for virtually every high school graduate — so an option other than the four-year degree is called for.

Again, Charles Murray is the main proponent, in terms of visibility, of the idea I am putting forth here. However, I have not read or heard him discuss one major problem with the present scenario: It will be difficult to implement change, given that the B.A. at present is an established signal from applicants to employers, and a systematic change would be required to eliminate this well-socialized practice as the standard signaling mechanism and instead move toward a more efficient alternative. The best news on this front comes from the high-tech sector: For many years, there has existed a plurality of independent certifications — in networking, programming, and other tech-related fields — that are recognized by employers as acceptable signals, in lieu of a degree. If something like this could catch on in other fields, it would be a boon to anyone trying to get into those fields who is not well-suited — financially or otherwise — to pursue a B.A.

I agree with the Post-Dispatch piece that a change is needed. I strongly disagree that the change needs to entail sending more kids into B.A. programs that many or most of them simply can’t reasonably complete.

For a cogent summary of the problems with the pervasiveness of the B.A., here’s author and public policy advocate Charles Murray:

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