In today’s Wall Street Journal, Charles Murray hits upon a breathtakingly simple and breathtakingly brilliant solution to the absurd inflation of college’s importance. That 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.
The model is the CPA exam that qualifies certified public accountants. The same test is used nationwide. It is thorough—four sections, timed, totaling 14 hours. A passing score indicates authentic competence (the pass rate is below 50%). Actual scores are reported in addition to pass/fail, so that employers can assess where the applicant falls in the distribution of accounting competence. You may have learned accounting at an anonymous online university, but your CPA score gives you a way to show employers you’re a stronger applicant than someone from an Ivy League school.
What’s wrong with the current system, anyway? To answer that question, Murray first describes it in the bluntest possible terms:
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.”
Read the whole essay here. Could it be that the valuation of simple competence over, say, brand recognition, is poised to make a comeback? We can only hope. Most of us, anyway: “Certification tests would disadvantage just one set of people: Students who have gotten into well-known traditional schools, but who are coasting through their years in college and would score poorly on a certification test. Disadvantaging them is an outcome devoutly to be wished.” Amen.