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.