Help wanted: BA not required

Jobseekers shouldn’t need a bachelor’s degree, writes Charles Murray in the New York Times.

Here’s a suggested battle cry, to be repeated in every speech on the subject: “It’s what you can do that should count when you apply for a job, not where you learned to do it.”

Murray wants to see tests of vocational skills replace years in college.

The residential college leading to a bachelor’s degree at the end of four years works fine for the children of parents who have plenty of money. It works fine for top students from all backgrounds who are drawn toward academics. But most 18-year-olds are not from families with plenty of money, not top students, and not drawn toward academics. They want to learn how to get a satisfying job that also pays well. That almost always means education beyond high school, but it need not mean four years on a campus, nor cost a small fortune. It need not mean getting a bachelor’s degree.

Students should be encouraged to seek a liberal education for its own sake, not as a job qualification, he writes.

Of course, Murray thinks that most people aren’t smart enough to earn a meaningful bachelor’s degree. I think it’s more a question of preparation than brainpower.  But it’s certainly true that years of schooling — lower or higher — are a very imperfect indicator of competence. Years ago, I worked with a smart, literate woman who turned out to be a high school drop-out. (She listed her high school on her resume, but never claimed to have earned a diploma.) She read books.

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Comments

  1. It’s not about hiring who’s qualified, unfortunately, so much as it is the petty politics of making sure the jobs of the degreed are protected from competition. My boss and I ran into unintended consequences from this: he and I wrote a job description for the job I’ve been doing successfully without a degree for the last three years, and it included the phrase “degree preferred.” Some HR bastard shortly afterwards told me that I was unqualified for my own job and my “status was in jeopardy.” My boss (and HIS boss) had to go to bat for me to keep me from getting fired.

    In jobs where the training provided specifically in college classrooms really does make a difference (engineers and architects, doctors and surgeons, lawyers and judges), there is a certification and licensing program in place. Just about everything else I can think of (except possibly for copy editors) can be done properly by people trained on the job or as dilettantes in their spare time.

    I hate to say it, but I could train any sufficiently bright, levelheaded seventeen-year-old geek to do my job almost as well as I can do it. We did in fact recently hire a smart gal half my age with a double degree (engineering and international business, no less) to do this job on the other side of the world, and although she is better at some aspects of the job than I am (since we work with engineers, I’d like to have more engineering training), she is not as good at others (working directly with users to troubleshoot issues without direct supervision). Culture and maturity play into this more than a college degree does.

  2. I’m interested that you seem to reject Murray’s view that most haven’t the intellectual power to earn a meaningful BA. I have a somewhat unusual perspective: I attended community college (Merritt JC Oakland CA), state normal school (Sonoma State), and flagship state U (Berkeley) on my way to a degree, and it seemed to me that many of my fellow students at Merritt and Sonoma would have been lost at Berkeley. Sonoma was clearly preparing teachers and nurses and lab techs. So my experience left me pretty ready to buy Murray’s idea there.

    I’m with Speedwell, I think much of the choice to require BA degrees for jobs is credentialism. That said, we have so tied ourselves in knots about discrimination claims that requiring a BA is one of the few ways we allow employers to get a signal that someone can write, has sufficient forward orientation to plan a week of work, etc. It’s very costly.

  3. I may not have a degree, but I worked as a proofreader in college and was an English department tutor for my sophomore year. IMNSHO, using a BA as a signal that someone can organize their thoughts, write intelligibly, and plan ahead is like using a fart as a signal that someone ate a nutritious lunch.

  4. It’d be nice if a BA was the signaling device we need, but with most of the students I’ve taught it seemed to be more a question of inclination that preparation or intelligence: many could do the work, but didn’t think they should have to. Classic professor’s bias is at work here (I was a serious student, so it surprises me that not everybody was), but the programs I’ve seen do seem watered down since 15-20 years ago.

    I’m no longer in academia, and we homeschool, so I’ve been trying to think about non-institutional approaches to training in my discipline, but they all seem to boil down to internships, and without a accredited degree an internship isn’t worth much unless it’s incredibly focused in exactly the hiring company’s needs.

  5. “it seemed to me that many of my fellow students at Merritt and Sonoma would have been lost at Berkeley”…but to what degree was this due to a lack of inherent capability versus a lousy K-12 school sexperience?

  6. I heard Ivan Illich talk during my freshman year at Rice University (1975). He asked the question, “What is the difference between a graduate and someone who is one hour short?” He felt the obvious answer was “nothing”, but it was pretty clear to me that the graduate had finished the job, regardless of how silly they thought the requirements were.

    Given roughly equal candidates, wouldn’t you choose the person who had proof that they could pick a goal four years in the future and achieve it?

  7. Given roughly equal candidates, wouldn’t you choose the person who had proof that they could pick a goal four years in the future and achieve it?

    Walter, there are a couple of bad assumptions in this. The first is that the reason a person didn’t finish a degree is because of lack of competence or work ethic. Personally, I never finished my music ed degree for two reasons: I got close enough to the world of education to realize I would be miserable if I entered it and I had a very ill family member to support. I picked another path because it was the most logical thing to do.

    The second bad assumption is that employers are using a BA as a tie-breaker. Most use it as an up-front filter. I’m in the software world not because of credentials but because of demonstrated competence. Most employers wouldn’t look at me for even an entry-level office position without a BA. It took over a year working as a temp to find an opportunity to prove myself. When I took an assignment that would’ve taken months and wrote a program to finish it in a week, I got noticed.

    When people talk about excessive credentialism, that’s what they’re talking about–turning away an otherwise highly-qualified candidate because he doesn’t have that magic piece of paper called a Bachelor’s degree. Businesses pass up talented people because they couldn’t stick it out in a four year college for whatever reason. In an environment where brains and talent are a competitive advantage, passing them up in the absence of a piece of paper is flat stupid.

  8. If this is a sizable problem, it would seem that enterprising people could find a way to exploit it to their advantage.

  9. Heresy!

  10. If this is a sizable problem, it would seem that enterprising people could find a way to exploit it to their advantage.

    Given the hostility of the regulatory environment towards small-businesses and the self-employed, the path most would’ve have taken is far less desirable than it was a decade or two ago.

  11. Murray thinks degree programs not stringent enough for only the smartest top 10% or so are wastes of time and money — what’s the point of expensive classes covering material the high schools should have covered? But when it comes to intelligence, we’re reluctant to admit some of us are smarter than others. We prize intelligence so much we think average is something to be ashamed of, when it’s not.

  12. Rather than a signal of intelligence, the BA is often used simply as a signaling mechanism for conscientiousness, which is more important in most jobs than intelligence. Completing a BA signals that you can (probably) jump through hoops as needed, accept boring assignments and get them done anyway, etc. and not walk away in a fit of pique.

    While not having a BA is not a signal of a lack of conscientiousness, it’s not to surprising that a lot of businesses figure that given a surfeit of applicants, they might as well slant the odds in their favor by demanding a BA, even if it risks losing some good candidates.

    (Especially given that most interviewers will admit there’s little way of differentiating good and mediocre candidates in most interviews anyway.)

  13. I think the BA in most liberal arts fields is a signaling device telling me that the kid had parents who bugged him or her into finishing. Communications, ethnic studies, media studies–most of these are meaningless degrees. Conscientiousness or just plain conscious during class hours? Staying awake for four years should count for something, right?

    My mail carrier–who’s not all that great at his job–has a BA in education from Cal State LA. Tell me that’s a degree at use. He can barely read.

  14. Even the “meaningless” degrees require a fair amount of work and effort to complete, although the actual pedagogical content may not be particularly useful. Except in the most exceptional of circumstances, they aren’t simply mailing you your BA.

    While it’s possible to obtain a BA with little work, the BA is still a moderately accurate signal of conscientiousness. Just don’t confuse it with it being a signal of knowledge or intelligence. Also, remember that a signal does not mean 100%. A company that finds 90% of BA holders are conscientious enough to perform a job and 75% of non-BA holders are conscientious enough may still find it worthwhile to require a BA.

  15. If this is a sizable problem, it would seem that enterprising people could find a way to exploit it to their advantage.

    You’ll be sued out of existence by the anti-discrimination bar first.  Companies cannot use IQ tests as a measure of job fitness despite IQ’s association with capability and even on-job safety (banned by Supreme Court decree; see Grigg vs. Duke Power Co.), and firing unfit minority employees is a legal minefield.  Employers require bachelors degrees because they weed out these expensive cases without opening them to lawsuits.

  16. Richard Aubrey says:

    The fate of those providing credentials must be taken into consideration.
    The lady who just “read books” is keeping nobody employed with the exception of the local librarian.

  17. I’ve never seen the need to administer a general IQ test, but you can ask questions related to the job. In my field something like, describe a b-tree and tell me what its good for and why. If a person is self-educated in the field you should be able to find something of substance they can answer. If a person is a blank slate I’d probably only hire them if I had some type of meaningful reference. As I’ve mentioned in one of the previous blog posts I have worked with two people that were hired in this fashion. You generally start them out at lower pay and if they work out they catch up with everyone else. Seemed like a good deal to me.

  18. describe a b-tree and tell me what its good for and why.

    Might be hard in this generation of Java-educated programmers.

    “Um, a tree? Isn’t that just a Map?”

    *sigh*

    In many cases, I think the seriously self-educated are more likely to be 10-20 years behind the current pedagogy and actually understand that it’s occasionally necessary to understand what’s behind the interface.

    [Sorry to others for the CS education digression]

  19. Tom –

    In many cases, I think the seriously self-educated are more likely to be 10-20 years behind the current pedagogy and actually understand that it’s occasionally necessary to understand what’s behind the interface.

    Please don’t get me started on having to work with Java-educated programmers.

    pm –

    As I’ve mentioned in one of the previous blog posts I have worked with two people that were hired in this fashion. You generally start them out at lower pay and if they work out they catch up with everyone else. Seemed like a good deal to me.

    Sounds like a great approach to find hidden talent.