Is college necessary?

Should a young person who’s offered his dream job wait till he gets a college degree? At Harvard Business Online, Tammy Erickson wonders if skills, smarts and motivation will become more valuable than a degree.

. . . as competition for college-educated employees increases, companies will become more and more motivated to use those without college degrees effectively in the workforce, in jobs that today would routinely require a diploma-in-hand as the price of admission. . .

. . . in their desperate search for college talent, companies will join professional sports franchises in recruiting individuals earlier and earlier in the pipeline. It will become a sign of your exceptional talent to proclaim that you were hired in your junior or even sophomore year in college. Only those in the lower ranks of the class will make it through as seniors.

And finally, although I hate to say it: a perception that at least parts of today’s college education are actually not particularly relevant may pervade more and more young people’s (and older employers’) consciousness.

Unlike her son, most young people can’t qualify for a dream job — or prove they qualify — without a college degree. Programming is the exception: My stepson started working for start-ups when he was in high school but went on to earn a bachelor’s and master’s in computer engineering. I spent the weekend with a couple whose son who started working for a start-up as a college freshman; by the time he finishes his computer science degree his stock could be worth a lot of money. Or not.

I see little evidence that employers are getting good at spotting self-educated winners without using formal education as a screening device for intelligence and motivation.

However, college degrees will decline in market value as they become more common and easier to acquire. A degree from Flagship U or Ivy College will open doors; a degree from Mediocre State U will not.

Via Phi Beta Cons.

About Joanne

Comments

  1. What does a college degree mean, anyway? In the Old Days (up through the 60s or 70s or so), it meant at least that the graduate had a certain amount of discipline, and was able to stick with a goal with a 4-year timeline.

    In the even Older Days (up through about 1899), it meant that the graduate had had a decent exposure to the Western Canon (including the classics), and could write a coherent essay on an arbitrary topic. It also meant, in many cases, that the graduate was from a prominent family and moved in acceptable social circles.

    Today’s graduate – except in the hard sciences – has an indecent exposure to all things liberal, and a finely-developed sense of writing in bluebooks the thoughts the professor deems worthy of contemplation without the distressing need for comparison with those of either the Western Canon or the real world.

    That may be an overly-jaundiced view, and I stand ready to be corrected.

    But I do claim that the liberal arts (as they were understood in those Older Days) prepare a graduate not just for a job, but for a life – one in which he can appreciate the beauty of a sunset, a sonnet, and a sonata with equal delight.

  2. ZZMike says: “Today’s graduate … has an indecent exposure to all things liberal, and a finely-developed sense of writing in bluebooks the thoughts the professor deems worthy of contemplation without the distressing need for comparison with those of either the Western Canon or the real world.”

    Dunno, Mike. My daughter was graduated from Washington Univ. in St. Louis in 2003 with a B.A. in English, and my son is a senior at Harvard with a major (they call it a “concentration”) in philosophy. I am pretty clear on what both have been exposed to in college, and have never had the impression that either was excessively exposed to “all things liberal.” Indeed, from talking a lot to my son during his first 3 years, it seems to me that most of his professors have leaned somewhat toward the conservative (or, more rarely, libertarian) side — more in those directions than particularly liberal. And both have extensively studied the western canon; my son’s pleasure reading (and I use that term pretty loosely, obviously) this summer has been Proust, and my daughter is going through Shakespeare’s plays for the second time. I don’t know what they have written in bluebooks, but I have read papers both of them wrote and never sensed much indication of their parroting back what professors wanted to hear.

    Now, my kids may be special cases (I like to think so, anyway!), but I’d be interested in knowing the facts on which you base your “overly-jaundiced view.”

  3. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Tarring a roof in Sacramento in August also develops an appreciation of sunset, a beer, and another beer. That was my brother’s motivation to go back to school. His example was mine.

  4. As a former professor at a mid-tier public University, I’d have to say that the majority of my students weren’t in the same league as Bob’s kids.

  5. John Thacker says:

    in their desperate search for college talent, companies will join professional sports franchises in recruiting individuals earlier and earlier in the pipeline. It will become a sign of your exceptional talent to proclaim that you were hired in your junior or even sophomore year in college.

    Already common in programming– or at least, the internship the summer after freshman, sophomore, or junior year that becomes a job offer once the intern graduates plus coming back as an intern every summer until then is really fairly common. Some companies make a tremendous percentage of their new college hires from their intern “farm team.”

  6. —However, college degrees will decline in market value as they become more common and easier to acquire. A degree from Flagship U or Ivy College will open doors; a degree from Mediocre State U will not.

    This has already happened.

  7. At mediocre state u., students now go for a generic masters degree. That is the bachelor’s degree of a couple decades ago.

  8. Charles R. Williams says:

    It may be rare (LeBron James comes to mind) but a student who has a shot at a dream job before getting his degree should take it.

    Relevant work experience, contacts and good references are much harder to come by than academic credentials. And frankly, for many employers academic credentials are a screening device for entry-level positions or possibly a sign that an employee can be promoted from a narrow specialty into general management.

  9. In the 50’s and 60’s, there were studies that seemed to show that if abilities and backgrounds were matched, college graduates had slightly lower lifetime earnings than those that went to work after high school graduation. Four years of work experience was likely to be worth more on the job market than a four-year liberal arts degree and no experience. The college graduates could eventually catch up to and pass the non-graduates in annual salary, but not soon enough or by a wide enough margin to make up for the first four years of paid work. (Engineering, medical, and law school graduates were an exception, of course, but for most students these career fields are not even a possibility, and for some that do have the ability it would still be better to exercise that ability in management.)

    However, this is a bit different – the kid already had three years of college. I wonder whether the company’s offer was truly based on a critical need for staffing a project that year instead of the next, or on a cynical calculation that by getting the kid to bypass the degree, they’d lower his worth to other employers and be able to retain him for many years with lower raises.

  10. Bob: Thanks for the info. That’s encouraging. My jaundiced view is based on what I read online – and it may well be the case of the few getting the most attention. On the other hand, we have professors like Cornel West (formerly Harvard, now Princeton), Ward Churchill (formerly U. Colorado, Boulder), and the “101 Most Dangerous Academics in America” (Horowitz, 2006). Clearly, though, 101 is a small percentage of the total.

  11. ZZMike: I’m glad you have an open mind on this subject. I should stress that my knowledge of my kids’ college educations is not based on anything scientific, but simply on talking with them. But from that VERY small sampling, I certainly come away with the impression that neither of them has been in any way “indoctrinated,” from any perspective.

    Nor, by the way, do I have any problems with any professors’ attempts to “indoctrinate,” at least to the extent that that means basing their teaching on their own ideologies. The purpose of college, in my view, is to learn how to think — how to sort and analyze ideas of all perspectives, including ones that are patently stupid (e.g., Churchill at Colorado). In that light, I don’t see how any academic can be “dangerous.”

  12. Eric Jablow says:

    College may be necessary, but high school isn’t.

  13. The big problem I see happening with a good number (50-60%) of freshly minted college graduates from second and third tier schools is that they assume that their piece of paper actually makes them qualified to do something, and they enter the job market with that mindset. These are kids who made it through college learning just enough to get their work done, and promptly forgetting it all. End result is that they come out just as educated, or uneducated if you prefer, as when they went in, except now they’ve got an inflated sense of entitlement.

    Now, this really kills it for the other folks who, you know, actually learned and grew in college because they’re now viewed with the same, skeptical eye as the kids above. Hence, you have bright kids, who couldn’t afford top-tier schools, working mediocre corporate jobs to get enough corporate experience on their resumes until they can find an employer who will give them an opportunity to prove themselves.

    As long as you have the people who are going to college just to get the piece of paper, and colleges don’t wash them out effectively, then the people who are capable but can’t get into/afford a top-tier university are probably better off just striking out after high school and getting a head start on practical experience in the workplace, as mentioned by markm.

  14. I like the way the military used to do it in the 1950’s and 60’s and maybe still does do it. If the US Army felt that an enlisted man had leadership and other relevant skills, they would offer him a commission and send him to OCS. The military first identified the people with the talent, and then invested in those people for the future. I know that if I’d never enlisted in the USAF, I never would have gone to college. The battery of tests enlistees were given then were pretty accurate as to IQ and personality type and in fitting the person to the right job. I encourage my students to take the ASVAB even if they are not contemplating going into the military because it can reveal stuff about yourself you may not know, including whether or not you are likely to be successful in college.

  15. Bob: I agree with you that “The purpose of college, in my view, is to learn how to think — how to sort and analyze ideas of all perspectives, including ones that are patently stupid…”. The problem I’ve read about is that some profs don’t want to include other viewpoints. One celebrated case was that of the Berkeley prof a few years ago who wrote in the course description “conservatives need not apply”. I don’t want to weigh Joanne’s blog down with long discussions (that’s shorthand for “I remember it, but I can’t find it now”), but a Google for “liberal professors” or something similar will uncover the proverbial can of worms.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Joanne Jacobs is skeptical about Harvard Business Online’s answer to the question, “Is College Necessary?” […]