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Is the B.A. Just B.S?

Charles Murray, he of Bell Curve fame/infamy, argues that a system where everyone is expected to get a four year college degree to get a decent job is silly.  I agree.  I find this description amusing:

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 often has nothing 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.”

He argues that a baccalaureate program makes sense for liberal arts majors seeking a classical education but that it’s otherwise a waste of time.   This particular passage, however, is bizarre:

Assuming a semester system with four courses per semester, four years of class work means thirty-two semester-long courses. The occupations that require thirty-two courses are exceedingly rare. In fact, I can’t think of a single example. Even medical school and Ph.D.s don’t require four years of course work. For the student who wants to become a good hotel manager, software designer, accountant, hospital administrator, farmer, high-school teacher, social worker, journalist, optometrist, interior designer, or football coach, the classes needed for the academic basis for competence take a year or two. Actually becoming good at one’s job usually takes longer than that, but competence in any profession is mostly acquired on the job. The two-year community college and online courses offer more flexible options than the four-year college for tailoring academic course work to the real needs of students.

It’s actually 42 semester-long courses (128 semester hours) in most institutions.  And, geez, medical school and PhDs require a hell of a lot more than four years of course work!  The only way you get less than that is to discount the four years getting the BA/BS.

Now, I’d agree, that four years of higher education, most of which is devoted to general studies courses, makes little sense for an accountant, hotel manager, interior designer or farmer.  Those people need training, not education.  (The broadening of a liberal education might make those people better at their jobs in the long run, but it has nothing to do with the entry level job.)  I’m pretty sure, though, that optometrists and, especially, high school teachers would benefit from an education.

This argument is more persuasive — but only in hindsight.

Finally, consider the hundreds of thousands of students who go to college just because they have had it pounded into their heads since childhood that the good jobs require a BA The wage premium that shows up in regression equations may or may not apply to them. In Real Education, I offer an extended example involving a hypothetical young man graduating from high school who is at the 70th percentile in intellectual ability—smart enough to get a BA in today’s world—but just average in intrapersonal and interpersonal ability. He is at the 95th percentile in the visual-spatial and small motor skills useful in becoming a top electrician. He is trying to decide whether to go to college, major in business, and try to become a business executive, or instead become an electrician.

The bottom line of the example is that he cannot compare the mean income of business managers to the mean income of electricians. If his configuration of abilities means that he could get a BA in today’s colleges, but his cognitive and interpersonal skills are minimal for success in business, he has to recognize that he will be at a huge disadvantage in the competition for promotions after he gets his entry-level white-collar job. The relevant income figures are those for people in the bottom few deciles of the distribution of income for
business managers. If his configuration of abilities means that he could become an excellent electrician, he needs to focus on the income of electricians in the top few deciles of that distribution.

I concur, wholeheartedly, that many people who now go to college would be far, far better off going instead to trade school or otherwise just getting jobs.  If you’re not academically talented and/or motivated to learn, you’re wasting your time in college.

It’s almost certainly true, too, that someone whose aim is to be, say, a brain surgeon or physics professor but who has only mediocre math and science skills should be discouraged from spending years of their lives pursuing unachievable goals.   It’s quite another thing, though,  to argue that someone with only somewhat above average intelligence should be dissuaded from going into business if they’re genuinely interested in doing so.  While IQ is no doubt helpful in that field, it’s far from deterministic.

Murray’s a fan of testing regimes, like the CPA and bar exams, as an alternative means of certifying people for employment.   He’s likely right that these do a better job of demonstrating competency in a field than possession of a diploma.

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 history professors and business executives 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.

Of course, one could argue the same for the high school diploma.   We could let anyone take the GED at any time and get on with their life once they’ve achieved a passing score.   Similarly, people could go to college and test out once they’ve achieved the competency needed for their chosen line of work — and return when they need to add additional competencies.

The main problem with this approach is that, in the more prestige professional jobs, attainment of the required degree from one the “right” schools is a powerful signaling mechanism.  It would be quite difficult, in the short term at least, to come up with an alternative sorting mechanism.   I’m not sure whether, say, a high score on the bar exam or whatever equivalent was set up for, say, would-be physics professors would do the trick.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. just me says:

    I absolutely think the idea that everyone should get a 4 year degree is ludicrous. I think doing away with the old tracking system where students were placed in vocational classes or college track without consideration to their desires was wrong, but we threw the baby out with the bath water.

    I really don’t see any need for every high school student to take courses that put them on a college track. I actually think most students who are uninterested in college or more interested in a technical degree or program should start taking classes for that degree while in high school. I think this would probably keep a lot of kids in school who would otherwise quit or give up.

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  2. rodney dill says:

    I’ve predicted an Education bubble, just like the housing bubble. I’ve got to daughters still in college and one through, so I understand some of the pain involved. With the ever increasing cost for an education (probably closer to 5 years now), some jobs that graduates can get won’t justify the amount that has to be spent up front. The high schools and colleges just keep repeating the same montra’s (they need the education to compete and its worth it), but at some point in won’t be worth it and the jobs available won’t justify the cost spent. Still better off than not doing anything after high school, but trade schools or other options seem valid. Mostly the increasing costs in education compared to the rest of reality doesn’t seem justified.

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  3. Rick DeMent says:

    collage degrees are signaling mechanisms for HR departments deluges with applications from too many people competing for too few jobs …

    Our economy has been very bad at produced good paying middle class jobs for the last 30 years. We are in decline due to an over reliance on finance and inability to create policies that produce sustainable jobs. Companies are killing the golden goose by their inability to do anything other then follow the buffalo heard of cheap labor around the world.

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  4. FireWolf says:

    Gee guys, why don’t we just institute Russia or China’s policy on career development? We simply look for those children who have natural talent and ability, and send everyone else out to the sweatshops for work?

    Seriously, I’ll admit that colleges and universities shouldn’t be people farms and that not everyone is suited for an academic degree, but this discussion should then be for individuals to decide for themselves. After all, no one has a gun to their heads do they?

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  5. Jamie says:

    If you want to go to college, go. If you don’t, don’t. You take your chances either way. but no one should keep you from doing whichever you want because they have determined it would bea waste of time for you in pacticular.

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  6. Michael says:

    The main problem I see is that a High School education doesn’t provide nearly enough these days. High School graduates are by and large completely unprepared for handling the real world on their own. If we want to do away with seemingly mandatory College, we need to provide a little more in High School.

    I actually think most students who are uninterested in college or more interested in a technical degree or program should start taking classes for that degree while in high school.

    A lot of kids don’t even know that’s an option. I took college courses during my junior and senior year of high school, I was one of like 4 students from my school that did so, and we were an above-average school.

    I’ve predicted an Education bubble, just like the housing bubble.

    You and everyone else who ever took a moment to think about the state of things, so don’t pat yourself on the back too hard.

    collage degrees are signaling mechanisms for HR departments deluges with applications from too many people competing for too few jobs …

    All too true, but it’s a self-sustaining problem: the more students that have 4 year degrees, the pickier the employers can be, the more a 4 year degree is needed to compete. The question is how to break the cycle, and where to break the cycle.

    this discussion should then be for individuals to decide for themselves. After all, no one has a gun to their heads do they?

    Effectively, yes. They’re told that without a 4 year degree they won’t make a decent salary, and for the most part that’s true. So while it’s not a literal gun to their heads, it’s the threat of eternal poverty, which is probably worse.

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  7. Triumph says:

    And, geez, medical school and PhDs require a hell of a lot more than four years of course work!

    I don’t know what schools you’re talking about, but at Harvard we only had 2 years of course work in the PhD poli. sci. program/.

    I know that it was only 2 years over at the Med school, as well.

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  8. Floyd says:

    “”That many people who now go to college would be far, far better off going instead to trade school or otherwise just getting jobs. If you’re not academically talented and/or motivated to learn, you’re wasting your time in college””
    “”””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””
    Counterpoint…
    If you have no talent that can be developed into a useful skill then you would be far,far better off pursuing a “BA”.[maybe someone will take pity on you and offer you a cubicle and a pencil to push]
    If you are not technically talented and/or able to concentrate, then you would be wasting your time trying to learn a skill, and might just as well spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and years of your life, buying mediocrity.
    Of course there can hardly be an alternative to pursuing a “BA” if you can’t be taught to read and write in only 13 years.

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