Charles Murray is making college & education bloggers question if he’s right when he claims college is a waste of time for most people, but once I made it past the provocative headline, I realized there’s a lot of good ideas inside the article.

Essentially, Murray proposes extending the certification process used in accounting to all other common college majors.  Final exams would be standardized nationwide and would provide a useful and comparable metric for an individual’s knowledge of that particular topic.

The particular advantage I see is that self-taught students might be able to skip years of tuition bills.  People will varied & overlapping areas of interest could demonstrate proficiency in all of them at once.  Cross-over specializations could help corporate hiring managers conceive of new potential roles inside their organizations and business model.

Of course, any suggestions of heavy tinkering in higher education prompts an inevitable debate about the nature and purpose of education.

I tend to agree with VillainousCompany: employment isn’t the only purpose of college – or even the main purpose.  I don’t think a liberal arts degree would go away suddenly just because students could also choose to test test their way to achievements in specific topics.  But unfortunately, not all employers will give smart, hard-working grads a chance to learn about calculating mortgage risk unless those grads have specifically majored in one of the business degrees that probably never once mentioned actually calculating loan risks.

There’s even a civic purpose for the liberal arts education – and this wouldn’t go away either if certifications became available for more liberal arts subjects.  What it does do is provide an alternative path for students who are primarily concerned with a means of achieving higher employability while allowing more new education models to compete – including my personal (biased) favorite, the self-motivated & independent student.

Murrey argues:

Certification tests will not get rid of the problems associated with differences in intellectual ability: People with high intellectual ability will still have an edge. Graduates of prestigious colleges will still, on average, have higher certification scores than people who have taken online courses

What they will do, is allow students from local public universities compete on skill standardized skill assessments with students who who attended other colleges.  Students like myself with liberal arts degrees would be in a prime position to quickly and easily pick up multiple certifications thanks to the logic skills, study skills, and even test-taking skills learned in college.

I don’t think there would be any sudden changes in the number of students enrolling in college – just another employment-based incentive to pick up books in subjects you didn’t major in.

8 Responses to “College – a waste of time and money or just kind of inefficient?”

  1. Certification sounds nice. What hiring manager wouldn’t want to be able to accurately assess the skills of a candidate with nothing more than a number? However, certification is fraught with problems.

    Certification is good for testing shallow knowledge but it’s more difficult at assessing deep knowledge. A person may be able to memorize a lot of information and have no ability to apply it. As shown by the “No Child Left Behind” program, there is significant incentive to do this, even though it is detrimental to the overall learning process.

    Certification would have to be relevant and remain relevant, which is a challenge in some programs. For example, what programming language should Computer Science certification focus on? Java? C#? C++? LISP?

    How long would certification be valid for? Would I need to be re-certified every year? Would a 30-year old certificate for computer engineering be acceptable?

    The reality of certification is that, in many fields, it has little value. An employer may look at certification in a particular technology while hiring but it will almost never be the deciding factor; it’s too easy for an incompetent person to pass a shallow test. The only thing that certification would do make money for the certifying organizations.

  2. Richard:

    “Certification is good for testing shallow knowledge but it’s more difficult at assessing deep knowledge. ”

    The question is not, “is certification perfect?” Clearly it isn’t perfect. The right question: “Is the cost/benefit package of certification better than the cost/benefit package of college for some people?”

    I think the answer is clearly “yes” for a sufficiently good certification system.

    By the way, in quantitative subjects, it’s pretty tough to memorize your way through a well designed test. When my students try this, they invariably fail miserably.

    As for the specifics like “what programming language to use”, that’s a technical detail. I’d suggest multiple certs for different languages, making sure that C++, Java, Python and Lisp are all covered.


    The reality of college is that, in many fields, it has little value. An employer may look at a college degree while hiring but it will almost never be the deciding factor; it’s too easy for an incompetent person to party for 4 years and pick easy classes. The only thing that college would do [is] make money for the college administrators.

  3. I agree that certification will not change differences in intellectual ability, but why should it, in my opinion, someones ability should be rewarded. This certification will help those with a more fixed income, and also those with less academic but equally intelligent ability, this I feel is the greatest advantage to using this system and I say, go for it!

  4. TigerTom: Personal LoanShark
    September 2nd, 2008 at 6:08 pm

    Four years of a Liberal Arts degree and you’re qualified for what? Office intern?

    A waste of your golden years. Get qualified in something people will pay you good money for. Edify yourself in your spare time, for free.

  5. I had to laugh when I read the headline. Of course it’s not useless, but it is often inefficient. I got my BA in political science, and I did learn one thing…what they teach is from another planet compared to the real thing. On the other hand, architecture and engineering students learn what they need to know, and I don’t want to drive across a bridge built by someone who failed in those fields!

  6. Ahh, another political scientist! I wonder how many of us end up in web publishing and promotion. If I learned anything from that degree its that anything worthwhile that can be done on the political front has to be done from outside the little system they’ve built up.

    Now that I’ve sat through the four year degree, though, I wouldn’t want to do that again to get “recognized” in a second field. I’m at the point where I’d rather learn things on my own and seek some sort of certification to prove that I actually did it.

    But still, even if my degree didn’t lead me directly to a related career, I don’t regret the time I spent because it was definitely worthwhile in terms of discipline, expanding horizons, and learning how to solve problems.

  7. Definitely just inefficient. Admittedly colleges aren’t perfect, but you have to keep in mind that they are NOT trade schools. They are designed to provided a broad life experience rather than merely train students to perform a particular function such as bookkeeping. If you want to argue that people forced into the “real world” to work and pay bills mature faster than students on a slower “college track” in a dorm environment, I wouldn’t disagree. But to argue for certification (a trade school type of experience) as a substitute for, rather than a supplement to, a college degree doesn’t make sense. It’s comparing apples to oranges.


  8. Ha – it’s rough, looking back (hindsight is of course, 20/20). But yes – I have a liberal arts degree (Music) from an elite liberal arts private college, and I can’t even count the number of mistakes I made.

    As an “investment” with monetary rewards, my education was a vicious, last-second bellyflop. I ranked near the top of “everything” in school, yet the B students must have had a little more perspective because they’re all doing better for the moment than I am.

    As a personal investment with non-monetary rewards, my degree is priceless, and I might even do it again if I could. The ability to work HARD, work SMART, and think outside the box are what I will use to become a self-made millionaire.

    I really believe this – sometimes education takes a while to pay off. And it will always be a more “solid,” wise decision to get an engineering, finance, math degree etc. However, there’s no degree for “innovation” – always remember that. True creators are driven to produce things of value regardless of their education or lack of it, and it doesn’t matter what field their Bachelor’s degree is in. Truly.

    Life is about hard work, commitment, and passion. Do whatever works for you. No matter what, though, a high SAT score will help, so check out my recent post at “SAT Help – Where can I find it?”

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