Saturday, August 23, 2008

College, an Investment?

"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'. ... 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 ther 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 of a handful of majors--engineering and some of the sciences--a bachelor's degree tells an employer nothing except the applicant as a certain amount of intellectual ability and perserverance. ... The solution is not better degrees, but no degrees. ... The model is the CPA exam that qualifies certiified public accountannts. ... 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 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. ... 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. Certification tetsts would disadvantage just one set of people: Students who have gotten into well-know traditional schools but who are coasting through their years in college and would score poorly on a certification test", Charles Murray (CM) at the WSJ, 13 August 2008.

Much of our educational establishment is based on the "post hoc ergo propter hoc" fallacy, i.e., college graduates make more money, therefore it is their college experience that caused it, as opposed to their being smarter which let them go to college in the first place. Under the second scenario college is just a "sorting mechanism". Vance Packard wrote about this in the Status Seekers, 1959, 49 years ago. I am less enamored of the CPA exam than CM. I know many incompetent CPAs. See my 15 April 2008 post. The last real debate over colleges' role in the US took place about 50 years ago, brought on by "Sputnik panic".

5 comments:

jack said...

A Bachelor's degree shows that somebody is capable of the standard critical thinking and generalization skills that are absolutely necessary for someone to function in society. It is an investment in the cultural literacy that binds society together. As soon as this is discarded we become a society that will begin to be in decline.

Independent Accountant said...

Jack:
You're entitled to your opinion. I don't share it. I go further than you: we are and have been "a society ... in decline". For decades.

Damajah said...

I absolutely agree that in the light of spiraling education costs, and the expansion of our economy into fields that pay lucrative salaries to people without college degrees, we need to question the real value of a college education. Spending one or two years of your life packed into "required" classes, living like a monk, and playing "stump the chump" with a professor who has never ventured beyond the ivy covered walls of academia, isn't as appealing as it may sound.

A college education pulls the best, brightest and most motivated people out of the work force, at a time when they could contribute immeasurably to the economy, by driving wages up with their increased productivity. Their deferred income, and defered contributions to savings, retirement plans, and social security, and the sometimes enormous debt they acrue, and you have to wonder if a college education is worth the effort. Many so-called studies point to the myth, that college graduates earn as much as a million dollars more than high school graduates in their lifetimes, but they leave out the fact, that college graduates also pay more in taxes, use a considerable portion of their income trying to maintain an above average lifestyle, and are paying as much as 20% of their net income back in student loans.

At the end of the day however, it is better to have a college education, and not need it, than to need one, and not have it. There are many, many specific occupations that specifically require a college education. Law, medicine, public school teaching are good examples. The degree is a gate keeper and important discriminator that protects the public good, by showing a credential that proves some competence. From an employer liability perspective, the degree can demonstrate a practice of due diligence with respect to selecting qualified employees

flash said...

Totally Agree with damajah


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