Two conservative intellectuals have recently raised questions about the value of college for most students. While they come from different starting points, they make the same basic point. I find the sources mildly interesting but I think the basic concept is long overdue. Just as high school needs to be reinvented, so does the undergraduate college model.
Charles Murray from the American Enterprise Institute had a piece in the New York Times about a week ago, which is summarized in these first paragraphs.
Barack Obama has two attractive ideas for improving post-secondary education – expanding the use of community colleges and tuition tax credits – but he needs to hitch them to a broader platform. As president, Mr. Obama should use his bully pulpit to undermine the bachelor’s degree as a job qualification. Here’s a suggested battle cry, to be repeated in every speech on the subject: “It’s what you can do that should count when you apply for a job, not where you learned to do it.”
The residential college leading to a bachelor’s degree at the end of four years works fine for the children of parents who have plenty of money. It works fine for top students from all backgrounds who are drawn toward academics. But most 18-year-olds are not from families with plenty of money, not top students, and not drawn toward academics. They want to learn how to get a satisfying job that also pays well. That almost always means education beyond high school, but it need not mean four years on a campus, nor cost a small fortune. It need not mean getting a bachelor’s degree.
Then yesterday George F. Will had a rambling column in the Washington Post about civil rights court cases that included this nugget:
…many employers, fearing endless litigation about multiple uncertainties, threw up their hands and, to avoid legal liability, threw out intelligence and aptitude tests for potential employees. Instead, they began requiring college degrees as indices of applicants’ satisfactory intelligence and diligence.
This is, of course, just one reason college attendance increased from 5.8 million in 1970 to 17.5 million in 2005. But it probably had a, well, disparate impact by making employment more difficult for minorities. O’Keefe and Vedder write:
“Qualified minorities who performed well on an intelligence or aptitude test and would have been offered a job directly 30 or 40 years ago are now compelled to attend a college or university for four years and incur significant costs. For some young people from poorer families, those costs are out of reach.”
Indeed, by turning college degrees into indispensable credentials for many of society’s better jobs, this series of events increased demand for degrees and, O’Keefe and Vedder say, contributed to “an environment of aggressive tuition increases.” Furthermore they reasonably wonder whether this supposed civil rights victory, which erected barriers between high school graduates and high-paying jobs, has exacerbated the widening income disparities between high school and college graduates.
Maybe this rings true to me because it matches my own experience. I never liked school with its emphasis on memorization, and was bored to tears as a college freshman when I dropped out. By the time I went back years later and got a BA, I was able to test out of about two years worth of courses. By then I had started a couple of small businesses, edited and published two newspapers, been a broadcast engineer, managed a radio station, done a lot of political activism, and had many other jobs. None of these required me to have a college degree at the time.
However, I don’t accept Murray’s thesis that this is primarily Obama’s responsibility – everyone under the sun is trying to pile more work on his desk. Instead it should be the basis of a public conversation involving universities, think tanks, unions, and other interested parties.
What do others think?