Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Right Wing Desire to Eliminate College

See this article in the Wall Street Journal by an American Enterprise Institute Scholar arguing that we should substitute exams for college.

Outside a handful of majors -- engineering and some of the sciences -- a bachelor's degree tells an employer nothing except that the applicant has a certain amount of intellectual ability and perseverance. Even a degree in a vocational major like business administration can mean anything from a solid base of knowledge to four years of barely remembered gut courses.

The solution is not better degrees, but no degrees. Young people entering the job market should have a known, trusted measure of their qualifications they can carry into job interviews. That measure should express what they know, not where they learned it or how long it took them. They need a certification, not a degree

Of course, this is part of a long-term right-wing effort to eliminate "liberal" college educations.

At the same time, this equates college with "skills," ignoring any broader educational component.

In fact, however, there is good evidence that the real impact of college is the reverse. Except in specific fields, it's not skills but culture that is the key effect of college. College is where people intensify or gain middle-class culture. And it's this "middle-classness" that allows individuals to work effectively in middle class settings.

The growing lower tier of colleges for the working class are likely much less able to initiate people into middle-class culture. They focus on "skills," which are, of course, important, but aren't the key characteristic that will give people entree to the higher level of middle-class jobs.

I'd be interested in research on the difference in the return for investment for schools like the "University of Phoenix" or "Lower Iowa University" or "Lakeland College" vs. more established traditional college experiences. A useful study would eliminate the "non-traditional" programs in such colleges/universities, and would differentiate between students from working-class vs. middle-class backgrounds. My bet is that the return on investment for those at the bottom of the economic/cultural ladder in these "skill-based" schools is significantly smaller than for those closer to the other end.

In other words, just like the promise "if you stay in high school and graduate you'll do better" the "if you go to college you'll be much more successful" promise is much less true for those who most need the benefits of these.

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