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Friday, August 15, 2008

No More College Requirement?

Having a Bachelor's degree is generally a requirement for a professional job. Sure, there are people who have such jobs without one, but I don't recommend it as the way to go. But, what does having one really mean? Charles Murray argues, in the Wall Street
Journal, that it's not necessary, and in fact absurd:
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."

Well, when you put it that way, it sounds so silly. He proposes certification tests for all sorts of subjects as substitutes. He uses the CPA exam as an example. This sounds all well and good, but being a CPA is very different then, oh, behing an HR person.

I have a PHR certificate, so theoretically I'm now qualified to do all sorts of HR stuff. Great! Hire me! (Well, I'm not looking for a new job, but if you want to give me lots more money, we'll chat.) But I worked in HR for 8 years without one. Was I not qualified to do what I did before? (Debatable...)

I have hired people who knew squat about the actual tasks they had to perform in the job, but who could think and write and learn. They turned out just fine. Theoretically, a BA (or BS) degree shows that you can do those things. But, there is, in actuality, no guarentee that the student learned anything. (For a story of a student I "taught" go here.)

So, if you were to set up certification exams, how would you do it? What requirements would you meet? Wouldn't everyone freak out? I mean, look at how peole deplore "teaching to the test" in elementary, middle and high school.

I'm an old school hardliner on math facts, history time lines, hard sciences, and grammar. Really. But, I also realize that some of the soft skills, such as those needed to handle a delicate employee relations issue, can be difficult to test for.

So, what kinds of careers would you set up tests for? What would they test? My brother the lawyer tells me that even the Bar Exam doesn't cover Labor and Employment law, which makes me wonder why it matters that my boss passed the bar, except that it's required for her to work as a lawyer. It certainly doesn't certify that she understands FMLA. (Does anyone really understand FMLA?)

(Via Joanne Jacobs.)


HRTopher said...

In my opinion no matter what kind of tests or certificates you go through the real experience comes through the job. I would not get rid of the traditional four year college for several reasons. First although not everything you learn will interest you or apply to what you WANT to be doing for a career. However the experience of bucking up and doing the work and meeting deadlines is necessary. The second reason is that many people who enter college for one thing end up doing something entirely different. With a certificate program you are limited to what you THINK you want to do...I for one had never even heard of my current career until second semester of senior year. What i encourage people to look for in colleges is their ability to work with businesses to provide their students an integration of school and real world experience. Most of my professors in college were part-time teachers as well as prominent members of the business community...
Theres my two cents

Ask a Manager said...

I've worked with some phenomenal people who don't have a college degree. I've worked some some awful ones who have multiple degrees. I think it's one of those things where we (as a society) are trying to impose a one-size-fits-all thing on a massive group of people where one size really doesn't fit all.

In hiring, I've stopped caring so much about the degree, unless it's directly relevant to the job. If someone doesn't have one, I inquire about why, but assuming they have a reasonable answer, I don't see it as an obstacle.

Wally Bock said...

We love degrees and credentials. In my working lifetime, a college degree has become the punched ticket that allows you to enter the officer class of management. Credentials have sprouted like mushrooms in fields of all kinds.

There's nothing wrong with any of this IF the degree or credential actually measures something meaningful. Often it does not. I've seen enough people with degrees who couldn't write a coherent paragraph to wonder what they spent their college years studying. And certification programs often seem to be more important as business opportunities for people selling certification boot camps that will teach you to game the exam over a weekend.

Lady Geraldine said...

I, for one, think that having a BA means very little in general. I know for a FACT that I graduated this May with English majors who couldn't construct a research paper. Rudimentary grammatical mistakes, and missing theses were only a few of the issues. I know this only because I had the misfortune of peer-editing papers in a 300-level English course during the Spring semester.

How is it that someone graduating with a BA in English can't construct a paper? It's because our education system is failing people at EVERY level. Instead of encouraging excellence, we lower the bar. This has created a generation of kids graduating from high school without being able to multiply, spell, or read.

These kids are then told that they can't achieve anything without a BA, so they drag themselves through college. They're already behind when they get there, so Higher Education decides to lower the bar a bit more. After all, the more kids they push through, the more money they make. These kids don't want to be there, but know it's the only way to make a living (at least that's what society tells them).

It has a detrimental effect all around. The kids who DO enjoy learning, who are really intelligent, are faced with incredibly easy coursework. They pass with flying colors, even in Honors courses. When they are challenged, they work hard to achieve excellent grades and value the learning experience. They graduate with THOUSANDS of people who put only a modicum of effort into their degrees.

These masses of kids with BAs still can't write coherently, and still can't multiply, and now they're college graduates, headed into the workforce. Every kid with a BA who didn't really earn it, DEVALUES all of the legitimately intelligent kids who did. So, the cycle continues with the MA being the new BA...

I'm sorry I'm going on and on, but the education system frustrates me to NO END. I think the only way to solve THAT is an overhaul of the whole system. Tougher tests and scrutiny for teachers (the "if you can't do, teach" mantra still thrums on in America) before they ever set foot in a classroom, engaging students in a way that appeals to them and that WORKS, and I think the whole idea that hard physical labor for a living is beneath people should be eradicated.

Not everyone is cut out for Higher Education. Not everyone should be. There is nothing, NOTHING wrong with wanting to work on cars, wire buildings for electric, or wait tables for that matter. People who don't want to pursue an AA, BA, or MA shouldn't be made to feel that they're less than worthy for making that choice.

*stepping off the soapbox*

jaded hr rep said...

I agree with many of the general sentiments, but let me stand up for the ol' college degree.

I share all the concerns with the quality of the education, etc. The problem is people believe going to college and earning a degree = preparing you for work and a job. Our higher education system is more designed for 'the art' of education - opening minds, learning things, and exposing people to new ideas and providing forums to discuss and share those ideas (i.e., becoming "learned"). While people who thrive in that environment often can channel those same skills and experiences to be succesful at a job, this is not the same thing as an apprenticeship where there is a true development process to a profession.

Employers still ask for degrees because there is no other "test" otherwise to gauge critical thinking, quick learning, handling pressure and other qualities. I personally think all degree programs should offer a "residency" period, similar to medical schools. Now that we have all the theory and edumacation behind us - let's see how you can apply these to real world situations.

Kelly O said...

The only thing that bothers me about the Bachelor's requirement is not everyone is financially able to obtain them. (Yes, you can go into debt for them, and yes there are assistance programs out there, but often times it's not enough.)

And I speak from experience. I have an Associate's from a local community college, mainly because I got a full scholarship there. When I finished that program, continuing my education wasn't in the cards. My parents couldn't afford it and I could not get enough financial aid at that point to truly help me out. (I know a little more now than I did then, but I also knew I had a brother about to finish high school, and he had no scholarship. I didn't want to ask my parents to help me go into more debt.)

I've worked in administrative support the last ten years, and am never ceased to be amazed at the emphasis sometimes placed on a degree. Yes, I understand it means you finished something, but what I've failed to truly understand is how a 22 year old with a degree in English is more qualified for an administrative support role than a 30 year old with a lesser degree in Business Admin and ten years' experience.

I'm job-searching right now and it's a tough market. But what is beyond frustrating for me personally is having a door shut in my face because I don't have a Bachelor's.

Right now I'm seriously considering just biting the bullet and finding a degree-completion program. I don't know what I would take, but right now the impulse is to just take whatever I am closest to completing in order to have that paper in hand. My husband is a computer systems administrator who never finished college and he's in a worse boat - not even an Associate's to show for the work.

I guess it is just depressing to be consistently pushed up against a wall because of that lack of degree. And watching some kid fresh out of college with no walking around sense get the job over and over doesn't help. (Yes, I know you have to get the world knowledge somewhere too, and I understand they need experiences to help them grow.)

I would really like to see companies at least meet people who don't necessarily have a degree. I've helped in the hiring process and seen managers refuse to interview someone because they don't have a degree in a field that clearly does not require specialized knowledge. (Not talking attorneys or accountants here.)

Sorry, I went on a while. It's a soapbox issue for me.

JKB said...

Kelly O, Your culprit is spreadsheets. A Bachelor degree is a simple check mark but an Associates degree with experience requires a bit of explaining. Something HR or the hiring manager could beheld accountable for. HR likes yes/no criteria. If you require a degree in the announcement then you filter out all those who don't have it. No need to explain. No nasty lawsuits. Not to mention cutting that stack of resumes down.

I've been on both sides of the equation. I worked for a government agency but needed a Masters to get promoted. The subject of the Masters was unimportant just a check off on spreadsheet. I've also hired blue collar jobs that required a USCG certification. I've had to explain to smug kids with masters degrees that they only qualify for lowest of low entry level while I'm hiring the guy without a high school diploma for the higher level jobs. Degrees don't matter, only the merchant marine document properly endorsed. Generally, they were crestfallen being so highly educated and seeking a job beneath them.

Certifications are not a panacea, however. I've seen fully licensed merchant marine officers so incompetent that they were restricted more than the newest unskilled crewmember until they could be put ashore. Strangely, many of these individuals had bachelor degrees as well. Knowledge with poor judgement is far more dangerous than no knowledge at all.

Michael L. Gooch said...

I support having a degree and here's why: 1) Having a degree simply shows me that the person is able to set a goal and stick with it. They had the fortitude and willpower to complete the arduous task of obtaining what many do not have. This matters. And while some college graduates are silver-spooned slackers, most are hard-working, dedicated people who are not afraid of demanding schedules often balancing child rearing and work. They should be applauded for their tenacity at the least. Those that have advanced degrees - even more so. 2) As the corporate Director of HR for a fortune 500 company, I have made numerous appearances in the courtroom testifying on behalf of the organization. This comes with the territory. The opposing attorneys always have a field day with my lack of education. I finished high school and thought I was doing good to have accomplished that. Had I known I would rise up in the corporation, I would have gotten my degree. I am the only person at my level that does not have a degree It is an albatross around my neck.

Degree? Yes it is important.

Will said...

Is there potential value in a college degree? Most certainly.

Have all college graduates realized that potential? Certainly not (and in my view, it's been getting worse for the past 10-20 years).

So why has a college degree become a near-absolute requirement for exempt positions? I'd maintain that this is just another example of an "incapable proxy measurement." A "proxy measurement" is a criterion that is used as an indicator for a harder-to-measure quality.

For example, if you're familiar with Elliott Jaques' "Requisite Organization" theory, you know that he used "time span of discretion" as a proxy for "complexity of information processing" (with respect to the requirements of a particular level of work). In that case, the planning and implementation time horizon for a particular task or project is assumed to be in direct proportion to the complexity of information associated with that project. This association was based on years of field research, so it has a high degree of validity--i.e., time span is a "capable" proxy measurement for complexity.

In contrast, "incapable" proxy measurements don't actually correlate to the factor that they purport to represent ("college degree" = "competence," anyone?), or at least not to a degree that justifies relying solely on them (and realize that context is important--the specific major and granting institution affect the degree of correlation).

So why do we use incapable proxy measurements? Because we don't know how to measure or make judgments about the quality that we really are looking for, and the proxy measurement has at least the appearance of being justifiable (particularly when everyone else in our organization is using the same proxy measurement). In other words, they're convenient (even if ultimately not serving the organization well)!

So where (in the case of hiring) does the fault lie? Ultimately with the top executive(s), but also to a great degree with the HR discipline. Why blame HR? What other discipline should have have had a greater interest in studying how to measure performance capability/capacity of candidates, and teaching hiring managers how to do it?

Anonymous said...

I am not a big fan of black and white answers. If everything was simply a matter of implementing policies and following them, you wouldn’t need HR. HR is or should be about navigating the gray. College isn’t for everyone and neither is every job. Nothing wrong with setting criteria and making justifiable exceptions. You just need to be sure the justifications are not related to protected classes. While I agree college is not a perfect tool, part of its purpose is to teach critical thinking. Yes on the one hand there are plenty of excellent critical thinkers that never graduated from college and I can think of at least one Yale grad with a nice big Oval office that pretty much sucks in the critical thinking department. Maybe I am just buying into the propaganda, but most people I know who graduated from college are better prepared for a corporate jobs that those who didn’t go/graduate.

Anonymous said...

I think the emphasis on a college degree is mostly silly for anything that isn't a real hang-out-your-shingle profession. What I have observed over the 30+ years of my working life is that the BA has gradually replaced the high school diploma as the sine qua non of job-hunting when, in point of fact, I have encountered an awful lot of college graduates who don't know squat and can't string a decent sentence together without help.

The problem is, to find the right employee without the checklist process requires a lot more work on the part of the employer and I don't think they want to do that, any more than anyone wants to train newbies any more.

Insurance, in which I work, has loads of certifications, and new ones seem to spring up every year. I would never expect someone to come with one of these designations right out of school, but I would expect them to be working on them by five years in. By then, they should have decided that the job is, or isn't, for them and moved on if it isn't.

If college really meant something when the degree is in a formlessly soft subject like English, I might not mind the emphasis, but college means next to nothing then. Problem is, highschool actually means less than nothing, given the complete collapse of our education system.

Anonymous said...

First off: I do not have a degree.
Second: I wasted a lot of time in college and eventually 'dropped out' being unable to pass (at better than 70%) four math papers at the same time to complete my third year.

I had lots of fortitude. I had lots of aptitude. I had no memory for axioms, standard integrals or differentials, for formulae in probability (is that Chi squared or ???) (I am still better at math than many holders of math degrees - I just need books for the formulae and axioms!)

I am now an very senior management consultant (my focus is HR).

I train MBA's. I manage, counsel, and educate people - most of whom have multiple degrees.

I am not exceptional.

I know lots of people who have no degree, but who are smarter and more capable than the market recognizes.

I also know many, many of the converse.