To fix student loans, make college unnecessary

To fix student loans, make college unnecessary, writes columnist Ed Quillen in the Denver Post.

Sending more people to college is no solution. Indeed, it would make the problem worse, for it would just drive costs up further while putting a glut of graduates on the market, thereby depressing their earnings.

Instead, we need to extend our civil-rights laws to forbid job discrimination based on educational credentials. Employers would be free to test potential employees to see if they had relevant skills and knowledge, but they could not ask for educational credentials.

If college was optional, prices would plummet, Quillen predicts. “People who wanted to study medieval French literature could still pursue degrees at schools populated by scholars seeking knowledge,” while job seekers would learn by reading, studying online, apprenticeship or whatever enabled them to pass the qualifying test.

After all, you don’t need a degree in English to ask, “Do you want fries with that?”

As learning goes online, it will increase the pressure to find ways for independent learners to prove what they know.

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  1. Even better then the silly idea of “forbid(ing) job discrimination based on educational credentials” is an idea one our correspondents regularly presents – direct the various service academies to put all their courses on-line, develop tests to determine understanding of the material for all classes, award a degree based on the passage of all the requisite classes and direct all federal agencies to accept degree-by-exam interchangeably with degree-by-class.

    It’s a sweet idea from almost any perspective except that of the current higher education establishment.

  2. Well put, Allen. As more universities – Stanford and MIT the latest – put course information online and even make certificates available, perhaps we can break the stranglehold that a bachelor degree currently holds.

    • Not my idea but it has the beneficial effect of undercutting over-expensive cost of a certification which is, to no small extent, what higher education is currently selling and without expanding the already too-large role of the federal government.

      The underlying problem is that the value of the certification isn’t illusory. There are people in decision-making position who’ve conferred value a degree by way of absolving themselves of some of the responsibilities of their jobs.

      Obviously, a conventional teaching certificate is one such with school districts passing their responsibility to ensure prospective hires are capable of doing the job to the colleges. But in the larger society there’s an analogous organization that’s not fit to do the job with which it’s been stuck – human resource departments. They’re the primary customer of college degrees since they’re neither equipped nor inclined to properly vet prospective hires.

      The scheme I outlined above – that isn’t mine – doesn’t change that situation. HR departments are still incapable of vetting candidates and still responsible for finding them so they’d still be in the market for certifications that credibly absolve them of the responsibilty for vetting those prospective hires.

      This idea accelerates the destruction of the de facto monopoly on certification that higher education currently enjoys. The destruction of the monopoly is currently underway but it’ll take less time with the credibility, and hiring power, of the federal government behind it.

  3. This seems to be an extension of a conceit raised by Charles Murray, but it’s unworkable. Let’s say you impose such a requirement, and impose massive consequent testing costs on industry: you’re still going to end up with college graduates doing better on the tests – because the most academically talented will on the whole still be drawn to college – and even if not, employers will designate additional factors as tie-breakers or “at least as important as the test result” so as to justify hiring the applicants that they want to hire. Including good, old-fashioned cronyism and nepotism.

    If employers saw no value in requiring a college degree for certain positions, they wouldn’t require college degrees for those positions. If employers believed that they could fill their needs with non-graduates they should also be able to pay less for the employees in those positions. Why do people proposing this type of “solution” believe that capitalism and labor markets don’t work?

    • I disagree that college grads will automatically outscore the non-college applicants. That conceit is what gets knocked out of the noob in their first weeks on the job. That mindset says “college grads are intellectually superior” and “elite”.


      • Stacy in NJ says:

        But, what college grads? How many young people who are “college capable” are going to forego a traditional 4 year degree (and the debt that goes with it) for some mix of non-traditional certification/qualification testing, internship/apprenticeship, specialized study program? If that pathway leads to attractive jobs/professions MANY who previously would have gone the traditional B.A./B.S will choose the more pragmatic route.

        It’s not about competition between college grads and others. It’s about those who previously would have been college grads and some capable “others” pursuing a more specialized and pragmatic route to employment and career.

        It’s about efficiency.

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          Also, there will be no testing cost for industry. Individuals who have worked in specific industries will create start-ups that teach (from multiple sources), test and certify. It’s a wonderful business opportunity for those with the necessary background knowledge.

  4. GEORGE LARSON says:

    “If employers saw no value in requiring a college degree for certain positions, they wouldn’t require college degrees for those positions.”

    Long ago i was told that the reason businesses tend to favor the educated is not because they will be initially better at the job, but because they have more growth potential and can be promoted to higher positions. One time it was described as selecting the candidate most likely to be the CEO in 30 years. I am not sure how often this is true.

    “If employers believed that they could fill their needs with non-graduates they should also be able to pay less for the employees in those positions.”

    I am not sure markets are a good model of the hiring process. The job market is not transparent. Many jobs are never advertised and are filled informally by headhunters, agents, word of mouth, personal contacts, business contacts, family relationships and friendships. Of course there is the other problem , managers often tend to hire people like themselves. Too often a job interview is more like a first date than a discussion of experience and qualifications.

  5. Nope, I disagree, not all college grads will do better on the test. Particularly when the test is in the STEM area. I know many nerdy types that don’t have a degree, but are quite competent at the job.

  6. This is a lovely idea, but I don’t see how it could ever be made to work. Part of what getting a good engineering degree signals, for example, is that the candidate had the intelligence, stick-to-itiveness and all-around gumption to get through a good program. They were able to juggle multiple classes at once, perform alone and in groups, sweat the hard stuff and interact successfully with the bureaucracy of their department.

    Also, if you were just going to test, say, an aerospace engineer, you’d have to test them on aerodynamics, structures, materials science, incompressible fluid dynamics, thermodynamics, control theory and a host of other things. Should the test include orbital dynamics, since it isn’t required for all aero degrees? What about math? If you apply for multiple jobs, do you have to take a test at each one?

    I think you still need the credentials, but I agree that they don’t have to come from a bricks and mortar college. Testing would be incredibly tedious and expensive.

  7. we need to extend our civil-rights laws to forbid job discrimination based on educational credentials. Employers would be free to test potential employees to see if they had relevant skills and knowledge, but they could not ask for educational credentials.

    Apparently someone has never heard of Griggs vs. Duke Power, which outlawed most non-college credentials and general tests due to their “disparate impact”.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Yes, but wasn’t Griggs about tests administered by the employer? What if it’s a non-degreed credential issued by a 3rd party? Khan Academy or MIT online?

      • You have to show the test is job-related, and courts have construed that very narrowly.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        Griggs outlawed pretty much all tests that had a “disparate impact” no matter who administered them.

        The rise of online courses does bring up an interesting “law school hypothetical.” Right now a prospective employer can advertise a warehouse manager job as “college degree required” and then hire someone who majored in French Language and Literature. Could they hire someone who took and passed a similar number of online courses in French Language and Literature instead of someone without a college degree?

        What if they choose the college graduate (French L & L) over someone who took and passed online courses in management and accounting? Could the latter sue? What if the latter was a URM (under-represented minority)?

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          Well, Ricci overturned that.

          • I thought Ricci just said the rules couldn’t be changed after the game was played.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            I haven’t kept up with employment discrimination law. Thanks for the pointer to Ricci.

            Ginsburg in dissent asserts that Riccioverturns Griggs though the majority opinion takes pains to say that it doesn’t. My initial impression is that it is a wishy-washy 5-4 “swing vote” opinion that changes existing law slightly while pretending to change it not at all.

            Does anyone reading this know if the decision has done much to change how people actually hire? The decision came down June 29, 2009 so it has been almost three years.

            The question before the Court was whether the City of New Haven could throw out the results of its newly developed fire-fighters promotion test because whites scored better than blacks and hispanics. The Court said no. The majority opinion makes a big deal out of how much time and effort went into making the test, and how much the test-makers consulted with minority fire-fighters and tried to make the test non-discriminatory.

            It seems to me that it would be very easy for a later court to throw out a test with disparate impact if the test development process was not so complicated and expensive, and where the test developer could not provide evidence that it had taken numerous steps to try to avoid being discriminatory.

            P.S. The test was developed by a private company under contract to the City.

            P.P.S. Justice Scalia’s concurrence suggests that he would get rid of the disparate impact test entirely. However, no other Justice was willing to join the concurrence.