Replace BA with certification

Instead of requiring a meaningless bachelor’s degree, employers should ask job applicants for a certificate of their skills, writes Charles Murray in the Wall Street Journal.

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?

What you know, not where you paid tuition or for how long, should make the difference, Murray argues.

Is it possible to write tests for a variety of disciplines that prove competence in the way the CPA exam does?

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  1. For Computer Science proper, the only certifications that might be vaguely BS-equivalent are the ones that require several years of industry experience before you can get them. Most other certs are quite narrow and only speak to mastery of one particular set of technologies, which is exactly what students should *not* be getting out of a BS (or BA) program. A set of two or three certifications would likely be sufficient for a number of entry-level positions (the positions we ought to be filling with AA grads today, although they tend instead to go to weak BA students or students from weak BA programs), but these positions are not those that would lead to the kind of on-the-job experience necessary for the more advanced certifications.

    There’s been some push towards using nationally normed standardized tests, but they’re not great fits for BS programs – the subject is too broad, and there’s some real utility to the fact that different colleges teach different subsets of computer science.

    But even fracturing those nationally normed tests into a dozen subjects, and expecting grad school candidates to pass any six or eight, doesn’t cover it: final exams only capture part of a student’s ability. BA-level understanding of CS, in particular, requires the ability to work on sustained projects that take weeks of effort to complete. Picky employers looking at new grads will check transcripts (and ask pointed interview questions) for the two or three classes that should contain that effort, making sure the students have those kinds of capstone-level skills. It’s hard to test for that kind of thing in a certification exam.

    When I was an academic, I thought internships might be a solution, even though in the area we were teaching the only available internships were doing scut-work; few of our interns learned skills beyond the AA level. Now that I’m in industry, I see a lot of smaller companies not interested in apprenticeship/internship models; it’s an investment that doesn’t make sense when you’re short on capital. But the larger companies that (think they) can afford to carry interns aren’t widespread, which makes it harder for many schools to run meaningful co-op programs. So I’m not sure what method other than university gets students the knowledge they need to be ready for some sort of meaningful certification.

    One rule of thumb from grad school is that a year in school should be equivalent to about three years of industry experience. For moderately-motivated workers, this seems to be true. Highly-motivated workers can learn very fast on the job, but we don’t have enough highly-motivated workers to fill out every job in CS, let alone in other demanding professions. (This also heavily favors young, single people, which is again self-limiting, although large sectors of CS have made do with it so far.)

  2. I think this is a great idea. Of course it’s hard to test for all the relevant skills and some tests will be very distorted. But the truth is, there are many majors at many schools (especially those which never even show up on the list of the top 1000 or even 2000 schools) where an employer cannot be sure of just what the student has learned.

    Yes, an electrical engineer will have learned many similar and useful things at virtually any college. But I’m sure we can name grade-inflated majors at many places with such low standards and such lax curricula that an employer cannot learn anything more from the average kid than the student took so many classes and passed so many tests. In those cases, even the student’s SAT scores are more informative than their grades or coursework.

    More important, this obviates the problem of grade inflation. If Unknown Center X flunks 30% of its class but the remainder all score highly on these tests whereas Ivy X passes everyone, but only 60% do well on these tests, that fact will become known and help to boost Unknown Center’s reputation quickly.

    Any good test destroys the presumption of elitism built into the current system. It will also destroy the tendency of schools to admit “for diversity” while producing some grads who are NOT the academic equals of those admitted on the basis of grades and test scores.

  3. First, I don’t think certification programs would cut it in technical areas, like engineering or programming because the needed skill sets are too diverse. Not everyone does the same kind of programming. I guy who does embedded system programming, for example, has almost nothing in common with a person doing web applications. There are probably around twenty or so distinct categories of programmer.

    Similarly, engineers come in many different types and the skills and techniques needed by an aerospace engineer only overlap perhaps 30% with the skills and techniques used by an industrial engineer.

    Of course, you could develop and maintain (remember technical fields are constantly changing) certification exams for each category, but that would certainly be a lot of work.

    Secondly, I think you’re SUPPOSED to get more out of college than proficiency in your major area of study. I realize that colleges are pretty poor at this (in my junior year I didn’t take a single course that wasn’t in the aerospace engineering department, for example), but they are supposed to be giving the student a well-rounded, liberal education in addition to their major field of study. This mission, of widening a student’s horizons, has pretty much faded away, but it used to be one of the major benefits of “getting an education.”

  4. Mark Roulo says:

    One rule of thumb from grad school is that a year in school should be equivalent to about three years of industry experience.

    This might be the rule of thumb in grad school, but it hasn’t been at the companies for which I’ve worked. A masters degree was generally counted as the equivalent of 1 or 2 years of industry experience. A PhD was *not* counted as 3×4=12 years industry experience, although the PhDs often had a persistent edge over the non-PhD co-workers [but not always].

    -Mark Roulo

  5. States already have a professional engineer’s certification, but it is not just an exam.

    From Wikipedia:

    The licensing procedure varies but the general process is:

    Graduate with a degree from an accredited four-year university program in engineering.
    Complete a standard Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) written examination, which tests applicants on breadth of understanding of basic engineering principles, and optionally some elements of an engineering specialty. Completion of the first two steps typically qualifies for certification in the U.S. as an Engineer-In-Training (EIT), sometimes also called an Engineer Intern (EI).[5]
    Accumulate a certain amount of engineering experience under the supervision of a P.E. In most states the requirement is four years, but in others the requirement is lower.
    Complete a written Principles and Practice in Engineering (‘PE’) examination, testing the applicant’s knowledge and skills in a chosen engineering discipline (mechanical, electrical, civil, for example), as well as engineering ethics.

  6. “One rule of thumb from grad school is that a year in school should be equivalent to about three years of industry experience.”

    That seems a little ass backwards – in the IT world more like 3 mths on the job is worth about 1 yr of education.

  7. Certification tests would work only if they’re of a better quality than the Praxis exams I had to take as part of obtaining my teaching license.

    Praxis problem #1–I took the test in 2004, but the test was based on data from the federal regulations prior to the current version of IDEA so that answers that would be correct at that time were not.

    Praxis problem #2–I had to take two tests for my specialty. I took them on the same day and discovered that a.) several questions were duplicated and b.) there were questions on each test which would have been a better fit on the other test.

    Praxis problem # 3–IMO, neither test was an accurate measure of my knowledge of the field or my ability to teach.

    I took the test with several people from my cohort, and we were in agreement on those three points (note: I was part of a high-scoring, high-flying, competitive and ambitious cohort. We compared grades and scores and duked it out for the A+s. Our teachers commented that we were one of the most able cohorts they’d seen. So my sense is that this is not a case of slacker teachers of low ability whining about a tough test).

    Ironically, my preprofessional Praxis exam was more reflective of the degree of knowledge I feel any teacher should have. I think it’s ironic that my admission test was of a better quality than my certification test (also note that there are two preprofessional tests, the Praxis and the CBEST, and from what I’ve heard, the Praxis is the more demanding of the two).

  8. This is an idea which is going to take off in the next generation as parents start to balk at the huge cost of BAs, which really have no automatic job applicability.

    What are employers really looking for? Someone who can write, synthesize information, problem solve, maybe even do oral presentations, and has some basic knowledge in that field.

    I don’t see what would be so difficult about crafting a few four hour exams testing people’s ability to write a report; read a variety of papers and then write a summary; craft a business plan; or present multiple ideas for tackling a given problem. Then you could have an oral exam component to be sure the person could speak relatively well.

    I would much rather hire an individual who could do those things than someone who just has a BA. I marked papers in undergraduate courses and many showed abysmal writing skills.

    Given how politically charged many liberal arts programs are, and how feminized they have become, I would think increasingly parents would be pushing for something like this. I would love it.

  9. Yes, it will be interesting to see what alternatives develop to getting an expensive Bachelor’s degree. Given those high costs I’d love that market to see some good ‘ol disruptive innovations. Perhaps entrepreneurs will find cheaper and/or better ways to certify employees than a bachelor’s degree. Sure would be nice if that happens before my kids reach college age 🙂 Although its always hard to win against entrenched brands, so I won’t be holding my breath.