7
   

Is a College Degree a Thing of Real Value?

 
 
Reply Sat 16 Dec, 2017 10:57 am
The World Might Be Better Off Without College for Everyone

The above link leads to a very interesting article in "The Atlantic" which is from the book "The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money" written by George Mason University economics professor, Bryan Caplan.

Caplan makes a convincing case that while a degree is very definitely of economic value to those who hold them, and the organizations that dispense them, it is far, far less clear that it is of real value to the organizations that employ the holders of the degrees, and, more importantly, society at large.

According to Caplan, a college degree signals employers that a job applicant has enough of the right stuff to stick it out for four years, devoting less time and effort, than ever before, to obtain a credential that is becoming ever easier to achieve. As an employer, I can tell you this is a signal of very limited value and particularly if you are not searching strictly within the pool of first-job applicants.

While the drive and determination to make it to a degree are not insignificant characteristics that are meaningless to the practical requirements of a job, in today's university environment, they hardly need to be Herculean. Devoting 27 hours a week to the endeavor of achieving a degree is not proof that the applicant will perform well in a 40 hour or more work week on the job, and the performance standards of most employers far exceed those of college professors and administrators. (At it's most ridiculous level this sad fact bears out when employers need to provide college-educated employees with remedial letter writing training)

In reality, the degree is a less a signal that the person holding it has the right stuff as it is that the person who does not may have too much of the wrong stuff. Clearly, though the latter relies on generalization and common assumptions. There are all sorts of reasons why a 19 or 20-year-old might find themselves dropping out of college and while a lack of self-discipline is probably the primary one, it's not the only one. Moreover, because a young person crashes and burns upon getting his or her first taste of freedom doesn't mean that they will never wise up and get back on track.

On top of the dubious value of a degree to signal strength of character, not only does it fail to signal that the applicant is qualified to meet the specific technical requirements of the job they seek, there is little to no evidence that it has actually prepared them to succeed at it.

The volume of applications received by companies for open positions is often staggering and, given the relative ease of applying online for a position, outlining the specific qualifications required simply doesn't stop a great many people from taking the approach of "It's worth a shot. What do I have to lose?" even though they don't possess the required qualifications. Therefore, basic screening is usually necessary to reduce the avalanche of received resumes to a manageable amount. A great many companies make the first cut based on whether or not the applicant has a degree for the signal it sends them. Can it cause them to pass on a diamond in the rough? Absolutely, but they have to start somewhere and the option of interviewing every job applicant is not realistic.

Since, however, the presence of a degree doesn't mean much more than confirmation that the applicant likely has a minimal level of determination and perseverance, it seems clear that the expense involved with obtaining the means to get past the first filter is far greater than the reliability, of that means, as a predictor of success. It doesn't make economic sense...unless you are the applicant with a college degree or the university selling it.

The employer only needs a first cut filter that will significantly reduce the number of applications ( the degree filter can achieve reductions by sometimes as much as 50%.) Such filters are bound to be basic and binary and if there was one with the same level of reliability but which involved far less expense, employers might use it, but they are not directly incurring that expense and few if any Human Resource departments bother to weigh the impact of their recruiting practices on society at large.

So great amounts of money are being spent on a process that doesn't actually prepare anyone for any but a relatively small number of jobs. This leads to students burdening themselves with incredible amounts of debt which the compensation of the jobs the degree enables them to obtain isn't sufficient to relieve them of the burden for most or all of a key period of time when they are trying to build the foundation of their lives: getting married, starting a family, buying a house etc. And it's not only the students who are heavily burdened, it's their parents, their spouses and children and, indeed, the entire national economy.

A broad spectrum, liberal arts education can be of considerable value to both the individual and society, but the reason young people seek college degrees and why those around them encourage them to do so, is not because of the promise of being a more well-rounded person, it is to be able to land a lucrative job upon graduation.

A degree will enable someone to get a better paying job than someone without one, but it's of little value in terms of their success in that job and it has staggering costs for the individual and society at large.

The system is broken. How do we fix it?



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Type: Question • Score: 7 • Views: 719 • Replies: 29
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hightor
 
  2  
Reply Sat 16 Dec, 2017 01:20 pm
I agree that the world might be better off without college for everyone — but there sure would be a lot of boarded-up colleges. I'm old enough to remember when a high school diploma was considered your ticket to success in the wider world. There's been a sort of educational inflation over the past fifty years and it's obvious that a college degree is not the indicator of competence and maturity that it once was.

If you haven't read Ivan Illich's Deschooling Society you might want to give it a look.

I think the whole traditional model of education in the USA needs to be discarded as it was developed in and for a different world. Which isn't going to happen anytime soon because the mythology of the one room schoolhouse and little Johnny giving the teacher an apple and grownup Johnny wearing a mortarboard and holding the college diploma which will make him rich. We love this story. It's part of our culture.

I recognize the truth in your examples...

Quote:
On top of the dubious value of a degree to signal strength of character, not only does it fail to signal that the applicant is qualified to meet the specific technical requirements of the job they seek, there is little to no evidence that it has actually prepared them to succeed at it.


...and sincerely wonder how our society can succeed with such inefficiencies in developing a future workforce. I hate the idea of students graduating with a colossal debt and I hate the idea of businesses scrambling to find some method of choosing the best from the scores of job applications and having only a transcript to guide their decision.

It would be best if liberal arts education and vocational training were handled on two different tracks. Both are important but they are only remotely similar. I'd like to see nationwide estimates of the professions and skills likely to be needed in the near future and a rational method of steering students into particular occupations.

But I have the feeling that such a wide-ranging reform can not be accomplished in the USA because of the power of the entrenched educational bureaucracy and general distrust of government. I'd be int3erested in knowing how other countries are handling the problem. Maybe there's a model out there which we can adapt to work in our society.





0 Replies
 
maxdancona
 
  1  
Reply Sat 16 Dec, 2017 01:39 pm
@Finn dAbuzz,
Sure, Finn. This is an interesting topic. I will take the other side of this.

I will argue that having employees with a well-rounded education is a benefit to an employer. Employers want people who can work together in diverse teams. They want people who can deal with authority and meet requirements. They want people who have experience communicating; both writing and speaking, and who have been critiqued for their communications.

College develops social skills that are very important in knowledge based jobs. People with college degrees are more thoughtful, better able to acknowledge and understanding differing points of view, and are better able to think ethically.

I went to college for Physics; I was there to learn advanced mathematics, Classical mechanics, Relativity, Optics and Quantum Theory. But, some of the most important skills I developed was the ability to express ideas persuasively, work with teams (including dealing with people who weren't doing their share), handle deadlines, and meet requirements when things didn't go well.

I will accept that college should adjust, and that there are people and professions that aren't well served by the current system. I would argue that for my profession... my experience in college was exceptionally helpful.

I don't believe that college is at all optional for a professional career in a modern knowledge-based career.

maxdancona
 
  1  
Reply Sat 16 Dec, 2017 01:44 pm
@maxdancona,
The most valuable classes I took in college (as far as life and career), weren't math or science; the courses that were part of my degree. I got far more out of the the electives, particularly sociology and ethics. I work in software engineering, the Quantum Mechanics I worked so hard to understand are now useless to me professionally.

Learning about Kohlberg, and Erickson had nothing to do with my major, and I never would have studied them on my own.

... but they made me an educated human being and make me a better employee.
centrox
 
  1  
Reply Sat 16 Dec, 2017 01:47 pm
It's nothing new. In 1974 I was working in a UK government social security office. We had a bunch of temps start, and I was chatting to one, a new graduate aged 22. "Nixon's in trouble, I see", I said. "Who's Nixon?" he asked. "He's the president of the United States", I said, "he might be impeached". "Oh." said the graduate. I said "I thought you had been to university." He said "Yes, but I only studied chemistry".
engineer
 
  2  
Reply Sat 16 Dec, 2017 01:55 pm
I think I would like my taxes done by an accountant that has studied accounting in college. I would like my lawyer to have a law degree. I would like the guy who designs the local bridges to have a civil engineering degree and the doctor giving me a physical to know something about biology.

My business goes through numerous certifications and we often have to show evidence that employees are trained to do their jobs. My former boss who was legendary throughout the company for the engineering organization he developed was occasionally asked "how are your engineers trained to do their jobs?" His answer was "a four year degree from a certified university program". Of course, they are trained in the specifics of the industry, but the wider skill set you need to "think outside the box" cannot be learned from the inside of the box.
seac
 
  1  
Reply Sat 16 Dec, 2017 10:51 pm
@Finn dAbuzz,
I think a college degree is a indicator of competency and also a completion of a standard education(more or less). Employers do like to see it. If it was not necessary, then a person would have to show their abilities in other ways to satisfy a job requirement. I know of a genius who did not finish college and is a great engineer in his own company. But he is having problems getting his State professional engineers license which is given after passing a comprehensive exam. Self study may not be enough to pass this exam.
izzythepush
 
  1  
Reply Sun 17 Dec, 2017 04:19 am
@centrox,
centrox wrote:

"Who's Nixon?"


I thought he was a magician.

https://nicklewin.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/davidnixonandbas.jpeg
0 Replies
 
Finn dAbuzz
 
  0  
Reply Sun 17 Dec, 2017 10:21 am
@maxdancona,
Quote:
Employers want people who can work together in diverse teams. They want people who can deal with authority and meet requirements. They want people who have experience communicating; both writing and speaking, and who have been critiqued for their communications.


Very true, but

1) Colleges are not the only places where young people can obtain these skills. High School and certain vocational training course can provide exposure to all of these skills. So can the military, and jobs that don't require a college degree as ticket for entry.

2) Having hired a great number of young people over the years (both for my company and when I worked for corporations) I can tell you that colleges have not been doing a very good job providing their students with these skills.

Quote:
People with college degrees are more thoughtful, better able to acknowledge and understanding differing points of view, and are better able to think ethically


What evidence do you have for this claim?

Quote:
I would argue that for my profession... my experience in college was exceptionally helpful.


I've no doubt it was for you and many others, but if it is to be used for screening applicants this must be the case for the majority of them, and it's just not.

Quote:
I don't believe that college is at all optional for a professional career in a modern knowledge-based career.


Unfortunately, it is not which is the basic premise of the linked article.
maxdancona
 
  1  
Reply Sun 17 Dec, 2017 10:31 am
@Finn dAbuzz,
There are two different statements that you may be confusing.

Finn,

Are you making the claim that in general, people without college degrees have been better employees in your business than people with college degrees? If you are saying that a college degree is no guarantee of someone with critical thinking and communication skills... I agree with you. Of course people with college degrees can still be narrow dolts (maybe I am an example of that Wink ).

My claim is that college is a valuable experience; an opportunity to develop critical thinking and communication skills. I would make the claim that a college education makes it more likely that someone has these skills.

I am not making an absolute argument. I am merely saying that a college education is quite valuable, and increases the likelihood that a person will have the experiences required to develop these skills.

I would argue that yes... a College degree has quite a bit of value in developing important skills, from knowledge specific to a field, to general skills like critical thinking and being able to express ideas professionally. This doesn't mean it is a guarantee, nor does it mean that one can't develop these skill through other means.

I am pretty sure that I read research that suggested that college education had a significant positive correlation with the increased ability to think rationally about ethical issues on a number of levels. I wasn't able to find the research just now on Google... so I will retract the claim for now.

I am very glad that I studied in college. And, I would recommend the experience to anyone who wants to enter a knowledge based profession. Without a college degree, you simply can't work in my profession.
maxdancona
 
  1  
Reply Sun 17 Dec, 2017 10:49 am
@Finn dAbuzz,
I am curious Finn. Obviously the definition of an ideal employee varies from field to field, and even business to business. What is your business... and what are the most important traits in an employee for you?

In my team (the company I work for has many different departments and roles) our primary job is to get a machine learning system to interact with human beings in a way that makes the human beings (the customers of our clients) happy. Our profits depend directly on the ability to interact with human beings and to "satisfy" them. We have metrics on what "satisfaction" means that correlate directly with profit.

An Engineer's primary job is to build better software to make this happen. But there are a bunch of secondary parts of the job.

We need to be able to talk to management, to propose engineering projects that we think are correct. And, we need to recognize the engineering projects that don't meet business needs aren't going to happen. Management has a basic understanding of the technology, they don't know the details. So, communication is key... and the ability of the engineers to understand the business needs and the customer needs and some other factors as well are crucial to being successful.

My college experience was helpful in this. Vocation training is an interesting educational model, and I don't discard it out of hand. Assuming that people in vocational training would master the advanced mathematics and specialized knowledge that would be one thing. But if people in vocational training would also be exposed to business, and sociology, and linguistics and other subjects as well, and if they wrote papers which were critiqued by professors and peers, and did lab experiments and problem sets... then it might be equivalent to a university education.

Finn dAbuzz
 
  0  
Reply Sun 17 Dec, 2017 11:00 am
@maxdancona,
Quote:
Learning about Kohlberg, and Erickson had nothing to do with my major, and I never would have studied them on my own.


You may think you wouldn't have, but you don't know that for a fact. I know individuals who did not go to college and are very learned in a wide variety of fields. They are not legion, but they are out there and to the extent that your personal experiences are evidence of a truth, so are theirs. My primary point is that college is not required to pick up a book and learn about Kohlberg and Erickson. Certain TV shows can provide, if not an education on a given subject that is the equivalent of an entire semester-long course devoted to it, an introduction which can lead to independent learning through books (and whatever is now available on the internet). The PBS series NOVA seems to me to be a good example of one such series, and there are now more and more channels devoted to the subjects of history, science and art: National Geographic, The Science Channel, Smithsonian etc. Some of the information provided by certain shows may be questionable, but the same thing can be said about many college courses.

I'm not arguing that job applicants without a degree are just as likely to be well read and educated as those with one, only that they can be and without a great deal of difficulty. Considering the dubious value of the degree has a selection screen, it doesn't make sense to rely so heavily upon it and ignore potentially good candidates without one.

Unfortunately, many organizations take the credentialing aspect of a degree to an absurd extreme. It is one thing to use it as a filter for reducing the number of applicants who have no work experience, but it's something else (stupid) to insist upon it as some sort of badge of honor for their company. My oldest son doesn't have a degree, but after he left college he continued to educate himself and still does. Moreover, he has 10 years of work experience in his current field and has excelled and been promoted at the companies he's worked for. His boss at his current company left and went to a competitor, but he valued my son as an employee and wanted to bring him with him; in fact he offered him a job shortly after he took over his new division. The offer had to be retracted though when HR learned my son didn't have a degree. So here was a situation where a well rounded person with 10 years of experience in his field and a track record of success and who was endorsed by a valued employee whom he had worked for, and the company passed on him because of the absence of a degree. His former boss asked his boss to interview my son so that he could verify he was worth making an exception and the guy told him his hands were tied.

My son is still doing very well in his current company and although he was disappointed (primarily because he really liked his old boss) it's not a setback let alone the end of his career. There are still a lot of companies that value experience and demonstrated success over credentials. If he comes up against someone of roughly equal ability and experience in competing for a promotion and that person has a degree, he is most likely to lose out to him. He knows it and he knows he can still finish his formal education and get that piece of paper, but he's stubborn and won't. His life, his choice.

The real losers in this situation were his former boss and the company who refused to consider him. Proven high performers are not a dime a dozen in any field and you don't find them by reading resumes.

I agree completely that education is a thing of real and considerable value, but that's not the question at hand.
Finn dAbuzz
 
  0  
Reply Sun 17 Dec, 2017 11:21 am
@engineer,
You make a good point and there certainly are professions where a degree is of value to the company that hires a holder or a consumer of one's services, but of course, that degree doesn't come with a performance guarantee. There are plenty of incompetent accountants, lawyers, doctors and engineers, and in the case of the latter two, people have died due to their malpractice and the degree hung on the wall of an office didn't save them.

I don't think anyone is arguing that all degrees are worthless and intense, specific technical training over a period of years isn't necessary. It would be very difficult to obtain this training in anything but a university setting, but aren't, in these case, more vocational schools than anything else?

There is an enormous amount of money underlying this issue as well. It seems to me that if someone can pass a state's bar exam, they should be able to practice law in that state, but they can't without having spent a lot of money on obtaining a BA or BS and then a J.D. If you need a lawyer, do you really care whether or not he has taken a Russian Lit class? If you could afford one you might prefer to have a Lawyer with a diploma for Harvard Law School to represent you, but if you just want to have a will written or you need someone to help you fight a traffic ticket, you probably won't really care where he or she went to law school.

It makes sense for states to credential certain professions as protection for their citizens. States have decided that passing a bar exam will prove an individual is properly educated enough in the field of law to practice as an attorney in their states. No matter where individuals went to law school, if they don't pass the exam, they can't practice law. Does it make any difference how they obtained that education?

0 Replies
 
maxdancona
 
  1  
Reply Sun 17 Dec, 2017 11:37 am
@Finn dAbuzz,
Quote:
I agree completely that education is a thing of real and considerable value, but that's not the question at hand.


Actually.... that is exactly the question at hand. Take a look at the title of this thread.

I think I agree with most of what you are saying. I actually relate to your son. I dropped out of college when I was 20 and found I could do computer programming work pretty well without a degree. I did this for about 8 years when I reached a point in my career where my lack of a degree was creating a severe ceiling on my ability to advance.

So I went back to college and finished in my early thirties. For me this was a very good decision.

I agree with you that the way the world works is often not rational (when looked at from an individual perspective) or fair. But, that's just a fact.


Finn dAbuzz
 
  0  
Reply Sun 17 Dec, 2017 11:38 am
@seac,
I would agree that it can be a valuable indicator, but far too often it is not, and its unreliability in this regard does not justify the degree of dependence upon it as an indicator.

I can speak from extensive experience in hiring people over 45 years, but, of course, it's possible that my experience is unique. However, the thread was started with a link to a piece written by an economics professor who has researched the matter and has based his position not just on his personal experience as an educator, but on data.

Some sort of screening filter is required for hiring companies. Whether or not the best is a personal interview doesn't matter as it involves too much cost and time.

Applicants for a job certainly do need to demonstrate that they can reasonably be expected to satisfy the job's requirements. Neither a graduate nor post-graduate degree alone can do that. Companies are not hiring people on the basis of their degree alone. Even if your degree gets you past the first cut, you will still need to demonstrate that you have the necessary skills and learning, regardless of how you obtained them.

I obviously don't know all the circumstances of your friend, but he has already proven himself to be a skilled engineer. If he can pass the comprehensive exam required by the state, should he be granted a license? Maybe it's next to impossible to pass the exam through self-study (I seriously doubt that though) but taking a few specific college-level course should be able to fill his educational gaps. He shouldn't need to take courses in the areas in which he is already proficient.




0 Replies
 
Finn dAbuzz
 
  0  
Reply Sun 17 Dec, 2017 11:55 am
@maxdancona,
Quote:
Are you making the claim that in general, people without college degrees have been better employees in your business than people with college degrees?


Not at all, and I'm certainly not arguing that it is in anyway preferable that a young person not attend college. I am arguing that college degrees are overvalued and overpriced and given that, they should not be as heavily relied upon as an indicator of suitability for a job. However, the fact remains that they are heavily relied upon and until there is meaningful changes it will remain the case that if young people want to compete for good jobs they need a degree.

Unfortunately, I share hightor's belief that the changes that I believe are required are not going to take place through a rational reform effort. If they do come to pass it will be because student loan debt has created an actual financial crisis that impacts everyone in the country the way home mortgage debt did. Even then the response will more likely be the government paying for everyone's college experiences, regardless of whether or not they come away with a degree, and that will make the problem worse, not better.

Quote:
If you are saying that a college degree is no guarantee of someone with critical thinking and communication skills...


I am.

maxdancona
 
  1  
Reply Sun 17 Dec, 2017 12:14 pm
@Finn dAbuzz,
There are two different issues here; college degrees, and education. I would argue that the education you get from going to college is far more important than the degree.

The things that students do in college; writing papers, being critiqued, defending ideas, interacting with other students, interacting with professors, doing problem sets, performing experiments, writing lab reports, these are things that very few people do outside of college. You don't go to college to get a degree. You go to get an education.

If you are going to reform the system (whatever that means) the college experience, from writing papers to doing problem sets to debating social policy invaluable. This college experience is expensive... you need professors, and buildings, and programs, and materials and laboratories.

But they are an invaluable part of any modern society. The challenge is making this education accessible to anyone who wants it.
Finn dAbuzz
 
  0  
Reply Sun 17 Dec, 2017 01:10 pm
@maxdancona,
I have taken care not to specifically reveal the precise nature of my business although I have given enough clues over the years to allow anyone who cares, to make an educated guess that is would most likely be correct. I'm in the process of selling the business and retiring and when complete I'll no longer have a reason to maintain the same level of confidentiality.

My employees don't require any more or less of the so-called soft skills that are required by professionals. They are all licensed so there are technical requirements specific to their jobs, but they also need to have a strong foundation in the law, medicine, and construction and be well versed in "human nature" The job is such that they have to become quasi-experts in a number of different fields depending upon what they are working on at any period.

Over the years, the majority of my employees have had college degrees and a good number have also had law degrees. Had a doctor and couple of nurses reporting up to me in a corporate setting and I currently have a CPA handling the accounting demands of my business. I've got nothing against degrees, I just don't think they signify much at all. I don't look at college graduates as pointy-headed no-nothings, but I don't look at them as anything particularly special. I know far too many that are fools, incompetent, nearly illiterate, and/or lazy, and it seems clear to me that it's just not real tough for someone to get a degree these days. If you can borrow the money and you have enough self-discipline to keep yourself from getting drunk or stoned 24-7, you'll walk out it 4-6 years with a degree.

My employees with law degrees are not and have not been uniformly better than the ones without and the ones with good old-fashioned regular degrees are not and have not been uniformly better than the ones with no degree of any kind. I don't require any new hire to have a degree but then I don't hire anyone without experience unless it is for an administrative assistant position (AKA clerical) and in and of itself a degree doesn't make a real difference in my decision-making process. Frankly, I prefer to see military experience, but the #1 qualifier for anyone is if they have worked for or with me in the past or if they worked for or with someone whose judgment I trust. Even people you know change over time so it's always a crap-shoot when you hire someone. The key is to determine if they fit ASAP and if they don't cut them loose ASAP. Keep this up with every hire and eventually, any organization can have a very solid employee base which in virtually every industry is the most important contributor to success.

0 Replies
 
Finn dAbuzz
 
  0  
Reply Sun 17 Dec, 2017 01:12 pm
@maxdancona,
Quote:
Actually.... that is exactly the question at hand. Take a look at the title of this thread.


Actually...it is not unless you believe a college degree signifies that someone can be called educated in a meaningful way.

I do not believe this.
maxdancona
 
  1  
Reply Sun 17 Dec, 2017 01:20 pm
@Finn dAbuzz,
You have that backwards Finn. And I am not saying that.

Most people who are educated have college degrees (I didn't say all, but I do mean most). That is not saying that most people with college degrees are educated.

What I am saying (and I hope you get this) is that the process of going to college.... writing papers, getting critiqued, doing problem sets, having required reading (i.e. reading things you wouldn't read on your own), interacting with professors and peer... is a very important part of becoming educated.

If you skip the process of becoming educated, which is encompassed in a good college experience, it is very difficult (although not impossible) to be educated.

If you want to become educated, a good college program is the way to go for most people. And the modern University system is an unquestionable success.. it is the bedrock of our modern societies.
 

 
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