Friday, August 15, 2008

For Most People, College Is a Waste of Time

Imagine that America had no system of post-secondary education, and you were a member of a task force assigned to create one from scratch. One of your colleagues submits this proposal:
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."

You would conclude that your colleague was cruel, not to say insane. But that's the system we have in place. Finding a better way should be easy. The BA acquired its current inflated status by accident. Advanced skills for people with brains really did get more valuable over the course of the 20th century, but the acquisition of those skills got conflated with the existing system of colleges, which had evolved the BA for completely different purposes.

Outside a handful of majors -- engineering and some of the sciences -- a bachelor's degree tells an employer nothing except that the applicant has a certain amount of intellectual ability and perseverance. Even a degree in a vocational major like business administration can mean anything from a solid base of knowledge to four years of barely remembered gut courses. The 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.

The merits of a CPA-like certification exam apply to any college major for which the BA is now used as a job qualification. To name just some of them: criminal justice, social work, public administration and the many separate majors under the headings of business, computer science and education. Such majors accounted for almost two-thirds of the bachelor's degrees conferred in 2005. For that matter, certification tests can be used for purely academic disciplines. Why not present graduate schools with certifications in microbiology or economics -- and who cares if the applicants passed the exam after studying in the local public library?

Certification tests need not undermine the incentives to get a traditional liberal-arts education. If professional and graduate schools want students who have acquired one, all they need do is require certification scores in the appropriate disciplines. Students facing such requirements are likely to get a much better liberal education than even our most elite schools require now.

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 -- just because prestigious colleges attract intellectually talented applicants.

But that's irrelevant to the larger issue. Under a certification system, four years is not required, residence is not required, expensive tuitions are not required, and a degree is not required. Equal educational opportunity means, among other things, creating a society in which it's what you know that makes the difference. Substituting certifications for degrees would be a big step in that direction.

The incentives are right. Certification tests would provide all employers with valuable, trustworthy information about job applicants. They would benefit young people who cannot or do not want to attend a traditional four-year college. They would be welcomed by the growing post-secondary online educational industry, which cannot offer the halo effect of a BA from a traditional college, but can realistically promise their students good training for a certification test -- as good as they are likely to get at a traditional college, for a lot less money and in a lot less time.

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.

No technical barriers stand in the way of evolving toward a system where certification tests would replace the BA. Hundreds of certification tests already exist, for everything from building code inspectors to advanced medical specialties. The problem is a shortage of tests that are nationally accepted, like the CPA exam.

But when so many of the players would benefit, a market opportunity exists. If a high-profile testing company such as the Educational Testing Service were to reach a strategic decision to create definitive certification tests, it could coordinate with major employers, professional groups and nontraditional universities to make its tests the gold standard. A handful of key decisions could produce a tipping effect. Imagine if Microsoft announced it would henceforth require scores on a certain battery of certification tests from all of its programming applicants. Scores on that battery would acquire instant credibility for programming job applicants throughout the industry.

An educational world based on certification tests would be a better place in many ways, but the overarching benefit is that the line between college and noncollege competencies would be blurred. Hardly any jobs would still have the BA as a requirement for a shot at being hired. Opportunities would be wider and fairer, and the stigma of not having a BA would diminish.

Most important in an increasingly class-riven America: The demonstration of competency in business administration or European history would, appropriately, take on similarities to the demonstration of competency in cooking or welding. Our obsession with the BA has created a two-tiered entry to adulthood, anointing some for admission to the club and labeling the rest as second-best.

Here's the reality: Everyone in every occupation starts as an apprentice. Those who are good enough become journeymen. The best become master craftsmen. This is as true of business executives and history professors as of chefs and welders. Getting rid of the BA and replacing it with evidence of competence -- treating post-secondary education as apprenticeships for everyone -- is one way to help us to recognize that common bond.


Reading standards drop in Britain

Reading standards among 14-year-olds have fallen in the past year, national curriculum test results revealed yesterday. The Schools minister, Jim Knight, called on parents to encourage their children to read after results showed a drop of two percentage points in the number of students who had attained the required reading standard. The results of the tests, taken by 14-year-olds, showed 73 per cent of students were up to par in English (down one percentage point), 77 per cent in maths (up one point) and 71 per cent in science (down two). The drop in English was based on the reading tests, where the number of up-to-standard students fell from 71 per cent to 69 per cent. Writing, however, went up from 74 to 77 per cent.

The results were published despite calls from education professionals to delay their issue, because so many papers were missing or unmarked. Only 84 per cent of English scripts and 94 per cent of maths and science ones had been marked when the figures were compiled. Leaders of the National Association of Head Teachers said the results should not have been published. Mary Bousted, the general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, claimed the tests were an "irrelevance" and should be scrapped.

Nearly 250,000 students failed to reach standards in writing, reading and maths. Only 60 per cent were up to par, the same as last year and well short of a target of 85 per cent set by ministers. Boys lagged behind girls in reading and writing. Only 62 per cent of boys reached the reading standard, compared with 76 per cent of girls, and 70 per cent attained the writing standard, compared with 83 per cent of girls. Mr Knight said boys should read more fiction instead of stories about football teams and asked parents to read the same books as their children, so they could discuss them.

The results show that writing weaknesses identified in 11-year-olds appear to have been addressed by the time children reach the age of 14, but reading and science standards fall away.


Some Australian universities highly rated

I have a large and ornate document issued to me by the University of Sydney

Australia now has three universities in the top 100 as measured by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, with the University of Sydney joining the Australian National University and the University of Melbourne. However, the number of Australian universities in the top 500 dropped from 17 to 15.

ANU dropped slightly, from 57 to 59, in the world university rankings, while Melbourne continued its relentless climb, jumping six places to 73 in the otherwise fairly stable top 100. Sydney University leapt into the top 100 for the first time, at 97. Vice-chancellor Michael Spence said it was "very pleasing" that three Australian universities were ranked in the Jiao Tong top 100. "It is an indication of the strength and quality of Australian higher education that we perform so well in world class competition," he said.

Down the ranks, which were not specified outside the top 100, the University of Adelaide dropped from the second to the third 100, while James Cook, Tasmania and Wollongong universities moved up from the fifth 100 to the fourth 100, according to an analysis by the country's leading commentator on Jiao Tong, Melbourne University professor of higher education Simon Marginson. The University of New England and Murdoch University fell just below the cut-off line for the last 100 this year, while Griffith University also fell not far below the cut-off line.

While criticism of the Jiao Tong methodology is common, it attracts attention and cachet simply because it meets the need for a global performance measure. The US retained its stranglehold on the rankings, with four of the top five universities: Harvard, Stanford, the University of California at Berkeley and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are first, second, third and fifth respectively. Britain's University of Cambridge was in fourth place.

According to Professor Marginson, Jiao Tong placements increasingly are seen as an important measure of a nation's economic health and competitiveness. He told the HES that while he would like to see an Australian university in the top 50, having three in the top 100 - and six in the top 200 - compared well with European countries of similar population and wealth, such as The Netherlands. However, Australia was well behind Britain and our top universities lagged behind those of European countries such as Switzerland, whose best was at equal 24, France (42), Denmark (45), The Netherlands (47), Sweden (51) and Germany (equal 55).

Australia also was significantly behind Canada, whose best universities - the University of Toronto at equal 24 and the University of British Columbia at 35 - were stronger. The most striking improvement was shown by China: the number of Chinese universities in the top 500 increased from 25 to 30 last year.

"In (the) future we can expect to see Chinese universities bulking larger in the top 200 and then the top 100, as the hyper-investments in (research and development) of the past 10 years begin to bear fruit in stellar research performance," Professor Marginson said. On the present trajectory, China was on course to become the world's second largest knowledge economy.

In contrast, Australian universities operated in what Professor Marginson described as a hyper-scarce funding environment, where the top institutions sustained research performance by squeezing teaching resources and other facilities, which was a highly undesirable trade-off. "Full funding of research, currently under discussion, is very important because it means research no longer has to be subsidised from resources generated by local and international students," he said.

Professor Marginson noted that in the US, Canada and Britain, full funding of research sustained significantly stronger performance. The US comfortably retained its position as the country with the largest number of universities in the top 500, although the total fell from 166 to 159, according to analysis by Melbourne University's Centre for the Study of Higher Education. Next came Britain, with 42 universities in the top 500, followed by Germany with 40 (down from 41), Japan 31 (down from 33) and China 30 (up from 25).

The Australian Technology Network recently proposed that the performance of Australian universities in world rankings should be a part of formal performance benchmarks.


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