Is College a Waste of Time?

Charlie Frago’s Saturday article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about the recently released report of the state’s task force on college remediation, retention and graduation (link opens PDF file) really ought to be read in tandem with Charles Murray’s fascinating piece in last week’s Wall Street Journal, titled “For Most People, College Is A Waste of Time.”

Murray and the Arkansas task force share a few assumptions about what colleges are supposed to do. As far as I can tell, they both think the main job—perhaps the only job—of higher education is to mold students into more productive and knowledgeable workers who are trained in economically valuable disciplines. Advocacy of what used to be called a “liberal education” that teaches us about our history, civilization and culture is essentially absent from both their approaches.

Perhaps more interesting is the nature of the disagreement between the task force and Murray. The task force thinks that the most important educational goal in Arkansas is to increase the number (or, more precisely, the percentage) of Arkansans with college degrees. Murray thinks that goal, as such, is largely a waste of time.

Why? Murray says that a college degree means little or nothing, except that its recipient has enough intellectual ability to pass some classes and enough perseverance to stay in college for four years. A diploma “can mean anything from a solid base of knowledge to four years of barely remembered gut courses.”

Murray says that what a 21st century workforce needs is not sheepskins, but skills. Both employers and applicants, he says, need a known and trusted measure of qualifications that can serve as a basis of hiring decisions—a measure that demonstrates knowledge and skills.

Murray argues that we already have a model for this: the CPA exam, a nationwide test that comprehensively measures competence in the accounting field. Murray wants to know why we don’t adopt this model for all sorts of career fields, which would allow career training and advancement for a lot less money and a lot less time. His article is worth reading.

Later this week: a discussion of the task force’s report.

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3 thoughts on “Is College a Waste of Time?

  • August 19, 2008 at 10:09 am
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    There is no lack of competition in higher education so you can get what you want. Not so with the government monoply of k-12. Fuzzy math and whole language instead of instruction by rote and phonics has had a lasting negative effect. If a student can’t read or add and multiply, then the world of opportunity is closed.

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  • August 19, 2008 at 2:49 pm
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    Best time of my life. Worth every penny….that I borrowed from the goverment and now have to pay back.

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  • August 19, 2008 at 3:28 pm
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    College is a waste of time for most people, including many of those who actually graduate. Murry is right, we need to establish independent licensing authorities that credential young people to work in various fields. CPA’s, Engineers, computer programmers, and many health care professionals have no need for a liberal arts education. All of those skills could be learned within 2-4 of graduation from High School. We ought to have trade schools to teach those professions. We are needlessly sending students deep into debt trying to give them an education they don’t want.

    We also ought to have high school courses for students that are not college bound. This country and our students would be much better served if our non-college bound students received vocational training before they left high school. How much better off would non-college bound students be if they graduated from high school with a certificate saying they were proficient in plumbing, or if they had a commercial drivers license, or if they had the technical skills to work repairing printers or copiers?

    The educrats that run our schools have foisted a lie onto society. They claim that every student can be a physicist or a bio chemist if only we do enough to educate them. That isn’t true, and, even if it was, most students simply don’t have much of an interest in the arts and sciences. Schools need to start educating the children we have, not the ones we wish we had.

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