Friday, June 22, 2007

Dumbing Down College

By Richard Vedder

A few days ago, Jay Mathews, a reporter for the Washington Post advocated that all students need to go to college. He used a Education Week report to back up his view. According to the report, an increasing proportion of individuals in jobs like electricans have some college training, and that the jobs of tomorrow will almost all require postsecondary skills. He goes on to say that college does not necessary mean students all need to study calculus and physics and tough subjects like that to get in --he advocated a kinder and gentler college where kids of average (or below) intelligence could obtain skills.

In short, Mathews was advocating dumbing down college, at least for some. If college is too hard, make it easier. Let us stretch up what used to be a perfectly good education for blue collar workers that was taught over 12 years (high school), and make it a 16 year program. Let us do less with more resources.

Sure, more electricians have some college. But that does not mean that the skills needed for that occupation require the high levels of cognitive skills and elaborate training traditionally associated with universities. True, higher paying jobs are held by persons with more education, in some cases because of the unique and valuable skills the persons learned in college (accounting, engineering, etc.), but very largely because college graduates are brighter, more responsible, more disciplined, etc., than non-college graduates. College is a sorting device, a way of providing information to employers as to who is reasonably likely to be good, smart, and motivated, as opposed to dull, mediocre and lazy.

What is needed are new screening mechanisms that will perform this sorting function at a lower price. Employers at virtually no cost get the benefits of tens of thousands of dollars spent by students demonstrating they have mastered a minimum level of competency, have at least average cognitive skills, etc. We need to move to a system of examinations, portfolios, internships, etc. that offer cheaper, alternative means of demonstrating competence. Maybe Underwriters Laboratories, J.D. Powers and Associates, or the ACT should go into the alternative certification of skills business --and save Americans a hundred billion dollars or so each year, with college left for the comparative small number of individuals who will be our nation's future leaders, persons who show extraordinary talent and knowledge through an extended educational experience. For the rest of the population, vocational schools and programs, as well as employer provided on-the-job training can provide the job-specific skills needed at far lower costs.


TC said...

Just a few thoughts:

I wonder if Mathews ever thought about the possibility that college educated people found they could make more money as electricians (or as Polish plumbers in France).

Since (IMHO) there is a shortage of skilled labor, the wages for skilled labor are rising - although I can not substantiate this with empirical research - or any research for that matter. The perception of a skilled worker shortage is based on what I hear from local businesspeople.

Heck, Elvin Bishop is a physicist, but people my age remember him as a "one hit wonder" with his song "Fooled Around and Fell In Love."

Some college grads just find out they don't like the cocoon of corporate culture.

I do not believe that in my lifetime, or soon thereafter, the demand for people with vocational skills will dry up.

The idea that college grads are in "blue collar" jobs does not justify traditional undergraduate college degree programs to become trade school apprentice programs.

Community colleges and vocational schools are around for a reason - because there is a demand for skilled workers.

By the way, I conducted an unscientific poll of 100 people regarding rising college tuition costs. I asked the following question" "Why is college tuition rising?

College is for rich kids - 52%
To build more buildings - 19%
To accommodate more students - 16%
Don't know/don't care/other - 13%

David said...

It is specifically the "hard" parts of college that are probably of the greatest value in most trades. A factory supervisor, for example, may need some math, especially statistics. An airplane mechanic may will need to have the ability to read long and complex documents. But the "dumbing down" of college tends to involve turning everything into some form of "social studies," resulting in the transfer of no particularly useful knowlege whatsoever.