The 26 November 2004 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education contains a noteworthy essay by Alan Contreras, "A Question of Degrees" (subscribers only). In it, Mr. Contreras, who is the administrator of the Office of Degree Authorization of the Oregon Student Assistance Commission, laments the proliferation of college degrees and the extent to which they have become the portals through which everyone desiring success in life must pass. The essay is important because challenges to the prevailing (and assiduously cultivated) idea that college is for everyone are so rare.
Contreras argues that our degree mania is a problem because people often have the ability to perform a job, but won't be considered "until the magic piece of paper is obtained." Compelling people to spend a great deal of time and money to get a degree simply so they can compete for many jobs that demand no great knowledge or skill is very wasteful. Some people just buy their credentials from degree mills and employers often don't care enough about the source of the degree to distinguish between the faux diplomas of degree mills and those of legitimate educational institutions.
That is a point that Paul Taubman and Terence Wales discussed briefly in their 1974 book Higher Education and Earnings:
(I)n the last few years so-called diploma mills have become a matter of concern to the educational community. For a fee, these schools grant diplomas by mail without requiring attendance or much, if any, work. Consequently, it is difficult to see how these schools could be adding much to a person's level of skills. Yet the fact that people are willing to pay the fees suggests that the diploma is useful to them, and clearly one possibility is that it is useful in passing an educational screen. It is also worth noting that the uproar over the diploma mills has come not from businesses that feel cheated, but from the more respectable members of the academic community. (157-8).
So why don't employers bother to kick out applicants whose educational credentials are from diploma mills? Two answers seem plausible. One is that some employers recognize that their degree requirements have little to do with knowledge or skills necessary for the work. These days, it is common to see ads for jobs such as purchasing agent or accounts payable clerk stating that a college degree is a must. But for those and many other jobs, employers are really only interested in evidence of trainability. If they don't much care where an applicant's degree came from, that may be understood as an admission that the degree "requirement" is merely a crude screening device to filter out individuals who have not taken even the smallest step beyond their high school education.
The second plausible explanation is that many employers don't believe that the "real" college experience does much more to enhance a person's employability than does the quick transaction with a diploma mill. Since colleges now grant degrees to many students who read poorly, write poorly, and get stuck on the simplest math problems, it's easy to see why the degree requirement is one that employers don't take very seriously; since they need to evaluate further to see if an individual is capable of handling the work and lots of applicants with "real" degrees are weak, why discriminate against those who have degrees from diploma mills?
Contreras is absolutely correct in writing that "Artificial reliance on degrees does not serve a public interest, and society should stop supporting it." We have a terrible mania for credentials, a mania encouraged by the higher education establishment. The demand for its services grows as the notion spreads that formal college studies are an essential prerequisite for even the most mundane of jobs. Many college degree programs these days consist of a few morsels of occupational training wrapped inside a big burrito of academically dubious courses to fill out the graduation requirements.
If businesses themselves were footing the bill for the training of people to manage hotels (to cite just one of the vocationally-centered degree programs one now finds at many schools), would they come up with such an expensive and time-consuming approach as that? Surely not. But since the costs of the degree credentialing system are borne by others (students, their families, and taxpayers), businesses are willing to go along. That is especially true if they are able to get colleges to "embed" a rigorous training program (for example, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer) in a degree program. Most businesses are happy to off-load their costs onto others, whether it's worker training, health care, or anything else.
Why, Contreras asks, should job training be done this way? "Is all job-training learning? Certainly. Should all learning be part of a degree program? Of course not. It is time for colleges and policy makers to take a serious look at what we call degrees, and limit them to learning that is truly worthy of a degree."
The time was -- and not so very long ago -- that job training was thought of as the responsibility of the labor market and college education consisted mostly of work to expand one's mental horizons. Individuals went to college to study "impractical" things such as the history of Rome, the plays of Shakespeare, the philosophy of Aristotle, the symphonies of Beethoven, and so on. Today, that has almost turned completely around. If you want a job, you go to college to get the degree that opens doors for you. If you want to expand your mental horizons, you're better off renting some of the excellent taped lecture series on history, philosophy, the fine arts, etc. that are made available by firms like The Teaching Company.
What to do? Contreras says, "Let's evaluate the labels we give our academic and training credentials and create a meaningful system, rather than simply sending everyone to get degrees, genuine or bogus." I'm with him in spirit, but colleges and universities have grown fat and happy by peddling degrees for everything they can think of. The current degree mania helps to keep classes filled and professors and administrators employed. I suspect that the only way to restore sense in this area is for state and federal government to stop subsidizing higher education.
Post lifted from NAS
ANOTHER ARGUMENT FOR SCHOOL CHOICE
Charles Darwin, squeeze over. The school board in this small town in central Pennsylvania has voted to make the theory of evolution share a seat with another theory: God probably designed us. If it survives a legal test, this school district of about 2,800 students could become the first in the nation to require that high school science teachers at least mention the "intelligent design" theory. This theory holds that human biology and evolution are so complex as to require the creative hand of an intelligent force. "The school board has taken the measured step of making students aware that there are other viewpoints on the evolution of species," said Richard Thompson, of the Thomas More Law Center, which represents the board and describes its overall mission as defending "the religious freedom of Christians."
Board members have been less guarded, and their comments go well beyond intelligent design theory. William Buckingham, the board's curriculum chairman, explained at a meeting last June that Jesus died on the cross and "someone has to take a stand" for him. Other board members say they believe that God created Earth and mankind sometime in the past ten thousand years or so. "If the Bible is right, God created us," said John Rowand, an Assemblies of God pastor and a newly appointed school board member. "If God did it, it's history and it's also science."
This strikes some parents and teachers, not to mention most evolutionary biologists, as loopy science. Eleven parents have joined the American Civil Liberties Union and filed suit in federal court in Harrisburg seeking to block mention of intelligent design in high school biology, arguing it is religious belief dressed in the cloth of science. "It's not science; it's a theocratic idea," Bryan Rehm, a former science teacher in Dover and a father of four. "We don't have enough time for science in the classroom as it is -- this is just inappropriate."
This is a battle fought in many corners of the nation. In Charles County, school board members recently suggested discarding biology textbooks "biased towards evolution." In Cobb County, in suburban Atlanta, the local school board ordered that stickers be placed inside the front cover of science textbooks stating: "Evolution is a theory, not a fact." State education boards in Ohio and Kansas have wrestled with this issue, as well....
Dover's modern politics are resolutely Republican -- President Bush polled 65 percent of the vote here -- and its cultural values are Christian, with an evangelical tinge. To drive its rolling back roads is to count dozens of churches, from Lutheran to United Church of Christ, Baptist, Pentecostal and Assemblies of God. Many here speak of a personal relationship with Christ and of their antipathy to evolutionary theory (A Gallup poll found that 35 percent of Americans do not believe in evolution). Steve Farrell, a friendly man and owner of a landscaping business, talked of Darwin and God in the Giant shopping center parking lot. "We are teaching our children a theory that most of us don't believe in." He shook his head. "I don't think God creates everything on a day-to-day basis, like the color of the sky. But I do believe that he created Adam and Eve -- instantly."
For greatest efficiency, lowest cost and maximum choice, ALL schools should be privately owned and run -- with government-paid vouchers for the poor and minimal regulation.
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