The Overvalued College Degree

   There seems to be a lot of attention paid to the nation’s education system at this time, mostly in the negative.  The general message seems to be that the schools are failing all of us, and that the United States will diminish as a world power because of it.

   But at the same time, we are distressed because the unemployment rate is the highest it has been in decades.

   Perhaps it is productive to consider how these two problems are related.  On the one hand, the country needs a trained, skilled and disciplined force of workers to keep us strong.  That, of course, requires an effective educational system.  A number of our emerging labor force will turn out to be the leaders, entrepreneurs and all around elite of the economy. But mostly, our educated labor force, whether college graduates or not, will be plain workers, employees who are hired to do a job.  Whether paid by salary or commission, or some variation, their careers will depend on how well they follow instructions and deliver what is expected of them.  But they are the backbone of the economy, and numerically, they will be the largest segment of our workforce.

   Looked at from that perspective, an important question is whether our schools are preparing them for success in that role, as plain workers, both blue and white collar, so that they can raise families and become independent and productive.

   This is a huge task for any country, but the thrust of the national debate seems to be focused on a very different question.  It seems, instead, to be focused on their chances of getting into college.

   I think this is a misplacement of priorities.  The well-being of this country depends on many things, but to channel all of our energies  into simply increasing the number of college students cannot be the wisest policy.

   In fact,  very little of the debate so far is about the actual skills and training that an educated worker needs for a career.  Instead, the focus seems to be on whether they are being properly “prepared for college”, as if that was the only meaningful standard for a healthy economy.  But should we expect the problem to be solved just because we have more college graduates? I challenge that assumption if it ignores the question of whether these graduates will have careers waiting for them that are necessary for a thriving economy.  I also question whether the skills they acquired while in college — which usually will take four of their most productive years out of the labor force — are really needed for the kind of work most of them will be doing.  After all, the ability to follow instructions, think independently and have competent work habits are things that used to be acquired in high school as a matter of course.  At least, that was once commonly accepted as the bare minimum of what you could expect of a high school graduate.  But that may have been some time ago.

   Instead of training future workers to become better test takers, why not prepare them for the demands of working at a job, every day, and using that experience to advance their careers?  Why not prepare them for LIFE, which is more of a challenge than being a good college student.

   I attribute this college mania to the assumption — which is almost never debated — that a person cannot have a successful career without a college degree.  But perhaps it is time to re-examine that.  Maybe the right analysis will include whether the SKILLS acquired in college are directly related to the job that the graduate actually gets.  If it is, then focusing on the college degree will have been worth it.  But if, as I suspect, the college degree is too often just a way for employers to “filter out” people, so as not to have so many to pick from, then it becomes just another artificial barrier based on habit.

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