Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Crushing the college degree

There are lots of reasons to go to college.  Many are enticed by the experience: live independent of your parents, live with a bunch of other people who are similar to you (in age, college caliber, college preference), experience people who are totally different than you (varied interests, varied social and political views), and party it up (whatever that means...but it sounds awesome to most incoming college freshmen).

But nobody really goes to college for the experience -- they just hope they can have an awesome experience while they're there.  Kids go to college to get a degree.  Degrees don't reflect anything about your "experience" in college, they just state that you completed academic coursework to that institution's standards.  Degrees are not reflections of the fun they had or necessarily the cool things they learned, but instead they are tickets to a career.

If I were running a business and hiring people, I would be very careful in how I do my hiring.  Perhaps I'm biased towards people without college degrees because my parents are great employees and don't have degrees, or perhaps I think college doesn't align well to the needs of many career paths.  Regardless, having a degree wouldn't convince me that you are a better job candidate than the next person.

Now let's say my business grows and I hire dozens of people every year.  Suddenly, I have tons of applications to sort through and need a filtering mechanism to quickly eliminate the worst 80% so I can go through my rigorous hiring process with the top 20%.  The easiest thing I can do is toss all the applicants without college degrees.  Candidate quality is correlated with having a degree, and based on this, I can do some filtering.  Since I am not producing good candidates, but only finding them, I have little incentive to investigate whether the degree is the cause of their quality or simply correlated.  My point is that big companies, in order to be efficient, favor people with college degrees over those who do not have one, regardless of whether or not the degree helps them be a better employee than somebody who does equivalent learning on their own.

In the meantime, college gets increasingly expensive every year while offering little marginal benefit compared to all of the exploding sources of free online education, meetup clubs, blogs, books, community organizations, etc.  Kids are caught between a rock and a hard place -- if they don't go to college, they are at a significant hiring disadvantage, but if they do go, they accumulate excessive debt and still have no guarantee of a job on the other side.

I think the solution is to create a set of career ready assessments that you can market to employers.  Once you can figure out what they actually want to measure, both in soft skills and hard content knowledge, you can deliver assessments to job candidates.  I am almost certain that the right set of assessments (some of which may include performance-based assessment by skilled evaluators) would make a much better filtering mechanism for employee candidate filtering than looking at college degrees.  If you could get enough HR departments to buy into these assessments, you could let job candidates build up a profile that allows them to apply to multiple jobs.  Similar to the college Common App, this suite of tests would provide a common baseline of information that is useful to most employers, but would allow for addendums or differentiation between the specifics that different companies are seeking.

At the end of the tunnel, employers are the ones offering the rewards -- paid jobs.  If they have a filtering mechanism that finds them better employees than their current hiring process, they will use it.  If this more effective process cuts out college degrees entirely for many fields, then you crush not only the college and university system, but the entire college prep industry, and most importantly the K-12 test-happy environment that is doing the best thing for kids in the short term -- helping them get into college.

[Background: I was in a department meeting where we continue to discuss the tension between college readiness and holistic development of kids.  As math teachers, the best thing we can do for kids right now is get them into college and improve their odds of graduating college.  The best way we can do that is to build a solid mathematical foundation that will lead to high standardized test scores and good college math grades.  I don't like that this is true, but I'm near certain that it is.

While sitting in adoration tonight, I was frustrated about all of this.  I followed the logical pathway from our discussion as a math department to the next level: college.  But colleges are not necessarily to blame -- their product is still valued.  They need competition -- an alternative pathway from high school to high powered careers -- that cuts them out.  Only then will they have a reason to change.  Perhaps I'm just an angry individual, but I would love to personally be a part of building that pathway and connecting the dots that ultimately serve kids' needs, including employment, without having to go through a lot of irrelevant coursework in K-12 or college first.]


  1. Thanks to Marco for finding this: http://smarterer.com/. Crowd-sourced test development to measure the skills employers find relevant. Only multiple choice tests, so not great, but fascinating concept that shares a lot with what I'm trying to describe.

  2. I think you should also consider the SUCCESS rate of those who enter college and those who actually graduate. http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=40. Less than 60%. I find it disturbing that the college "weeding" process of (like test scores and grades) isn't a guarantee that the student will actually earn the degree.