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Making College Unnecessary for the Workplace Might Make it More Useful

Posted on Sunday, June 27, 2021
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AMAC Exclusive by David P. Deavel

collegeThis past week Joe Kent, a father, veteran, and Gold Star husband running for Congress in Washington State’s 3rd District, released a statement via Twitter titled: “Government Must Open Jobs to Non-Traditional Educational Backgrounds.” I’m a professor who is financially invested in having students do a four-year degree, but I agree with the candidate on the main premise. Four-year college isn’t for everybody and it generally should not be a requirement for most jobs. And the more American government and corporations stop relying on the possession of a four-year degree, the better those institutions—and American higher ed—will be.

I don’t agree with all of Mr. Kent’s rhetoric here. He argues that someone who studied “poetry for four years” should not be given priority over a person who started out on the factory floor and worked up to a managerial position. The problem is not that Americans are prioritizing talented scholars of poetry over those in the real world. A true liberal arts education is a good preparation for a great variety of jobs in the real world where the question is not technical skills but the ability to think critically, take in large amounts of information from different fields of knowledge, and communicate well. We might well benefit in a technical age from more poetry than less. Microsoft president Brad Smith argued a few years ago that “as computers behave more like humans, the social sciences and humanities will become even more important. Languages, art, history, economics, ethics, philosophy, psychology and human development courses can teach critical, philosophical and ethics-based skills that will be instrumental in the development and management of AI solutions.”

The problem is that American higher education, absent a few bright spots, has been doing a dismal job of producing students who have the kind of cultivation and knowledge that four-year degree recipients should have. Richard Arum, co-author of Academically Adrift, a 2011 analysis of the failures of our colleges and universities, spoke of some of the findings he and co-author Josipa Roksa had documented in an interview. Fifty percent of students reported that they did not have a class in which they were required to write 20 pages in a semester and one-third reported that they had no class requiring forty pages of reading per week. By 2011 students were reporting that they were studying about fifty percent less than a generation before.

As he summarized, college was producing very little in the way of “critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills” in its graduates. While a 2019 study showed some improvements in the number of hours students reported studying over the last decade, too few college students were really doing the work. And as Arum observed, there wasn’t that much work to do for too many.

Though a good college education should be providing those thinking, reasoning, and writing skills, the reality is that they often do not. Recent research has shown that many business leaders have come to doubt that the symbol of the college diploma has much reality behind it.  A number of big-name companies, including Hilton, Tesla, Apple, Alphabet, and J. P. Morgan, have all loosened their requirements for a bachelor’s degree. Parents and students are starting to react, too. This year’s drop in undergraduate enrollment was especially steep—5% from spring 2020—but numbers have been trending down since 2012.

This is why it is good that candidate Kent has been calling for the federal government to catch up. But he’s not the first to do so. A year ago President Trump signed an executive order directing the federal government to revise its hiring based on “the principle that employment and advancement rest on the ability of individuals to fulfill their responsibilities in service to the American public.” Thus, merit rather than simply credentials should be the governing standard.

The order noted that this would bring the federal government in line with what many of those corporations are already doing and commanded that agencies only require bachelor’s or other degrees when they are legally required and that they only take such degrees into account when they demonstrate skills required for the particular jobs. If moved upon, such a change would indeed accomplish a great deal in terms of bringing more people from more diverse—both racially and socio-economically— backgrounds into the federal government. With their broader array of experiences and skills, a new crop of people in public service might make some progress on bridging what Mr. Kent calls the “severe social and cultural disconnect between the policy makers in D.C. and the people they are responsible for serving.”

So far, President Biden has not rescinded this order, but it is far from clear that anything ever came of it within the federal government. The order dictated that the changes be complete within six months, but by December 26 the Trump administration had other things on its mind. It would be a good thing if Mr. Kent’s rallying cry became the rallying cry of a great many others.

If the federal government and more businesses start to make it clear that credentials simply aren’t enough, it could have a profound impact not only on our government and our economy but on the flailing American higher education scene as well. University administrators might be forced to pull back on the promotion of progressive activism and the amenities such as climbing walls, which add expense and provide little (or negative) value to student education and go back to holding students accountable to actually learn how to think and write in ways that will make a college degree something that does add to a job candidate’s luster.

David P. Deavel is editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, co-director of the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy, and a visiting professor at the University of St. Thomas (MN). He is the co-host of the Deep Down Things podcast.

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Stephen Russell
Stephen Russell
2 years ago

College reuses:
Expand STEM courses
Expand Voc./Tech Ed
Adult Education
Reuse other campus for TV & Film production
Housing
Put Library into City, County system
Business Services
Hospital?
Rent office space
Museum
Business Seedbed
Nationwide by Need, locale, local use

tmoorman
tmoorman
2 years ago

I agree with the message Mr. Deavel presents but this should be done in high school. I taught for a while in a community college and was appalled at the number of high school grads that could not compose a good sentence . They were used to T&F, Multiple Choice, etc questions. Most were challenged to answer a simple essay question. A term paper was a disaster for them. By contrast older students who were in their 40’s, 50’s, while slow to remember their high school education, soon became he best students in the class. They had the education in high school and it came back to them. I think college is far to late to take high school classes.

Barb
Barb
2 years ago

I couldn’t agree more. College professors no longer educate, instead they indoctrinate!

Jeanne
Jeanne
2 years ago

Having a degree doesn’t necessarily qualify a person for a job over someone who has experience and a degree or not. Putting recent college grads in a position of authority over mature, experienced workers is not productive. Experience matters. Everyone can’t be the boss. They have no common sense about this. Just trying to sell college to all is ridiculous. It does not guarantee success. Content of character is not being considered and sets up age bias. Many college Grads are woefully ignorant of workplace integrity.

Oren
Oren
2 years ago

This argument won’t hold up in the field of engineering. Liberal Arts yes.. I would not want to be on a bridge, and airplane, a ship, just about anything requiring the engineering design expertise of an experienced licensed engineer. Acceptance of a “diverse” background for a lead design engineer just doesn’t cut it. There are too many examples of design failure as it is even with the mountains of requirements. I cannot imagine the result of a high rise building being designed by the unqualified Might look pleasing to the eye until it collapsed. But we have an example of that in Miami already.

Lynn
Lynn
2 years ago

Affirmative action and limits on free speech in the colleges/universities have all contributed to the devaluation of higher education, not just this woke nonsense. This has been going on for many years culminating in our present situation. Good education has to start at home and later in elementary grades for it to matter in high school then college.

I had a Russian born friend who came to USA years ago with children born in Odessa. Both kids became professionals. The younger one went to Cornell after graduating 2nd from top by fractions of a point. He called his mother at work one day to say there was a minority kid in a class with him who was admitted with only an 85% average! I explained to her about this and other strange phenomena about American justice, for instance, that she never could wrap here head around because it was all so illogical.

MariaRose
MariaRose
2 years ago

Too many people have assumed that a college degree guarantees them a high salary position that is above entry level work, without any experience in that specific job. The only college degrees that give you that “push” comes after doing working internship at the job, where one learns the job. You don’t get that experience by heavy partying and low barely passing grades. I think that you can get a college degree with minimum passing grades. Okay some people are not classroom geniuses but you do have to develop those critical thinking processes. Otherwise don’t waste time and money paying for college if your dream job is becoming a social influencer, because that’s just knowing how to make people think that you are important by pretending that you are.

charlesw04
charlesw04
2 years ago

Growing up in classrooms where everyone received a gold star for participation has given them false expectations. Those with conservative up bringing will likely survive this invisible barrier by starting at or close to the bottom of their chosen field. Those who expect to start at the top will learn how to negotiate food stamp lines long before they learn to stand on line to cash a paycheck.

There needs to be a rating system for degrees based on usefulness in the business world. Obviously anybody working toward a liberal arts degree is destined to be disappointed, as compared to a degree in and engineering field. Reality will always be counted on to bite you in the ass.

Bill on the Hill
Bill on the Hill
2 years ago

Trump was on the right track, hire according to merits earned, not a piece of paper that shows you are a college graduate…Trump has spoken about trades & learning these trades as apprentices…
Trade schools are an excellent way to get an individual into a trade without the requirements of a college degree…My own father went to trade school back in the 30’s. He never got that college degree, yet he was a successful businessman. I know people personally in the trades, yes they graduated from high school, but they are successful carpenters, electricians, plumbers & some are automotive technicians & making considerably more money than your typical college graduate earns.
There is nothing wrong with attending college, however, simply put, college is NOT for everyone…
Bill on the Hill… :~)

Jeanette
Jeanette
2 years ago

We should rethink educational years with considering if 4 years is even necessary for some careers. For medical most certainly the years are needed but not for every other job. Trades should also be encouraged.

Ron Howard
Ron Howard
2 years ago

I officially had only a ninth grade education, but took a lot of college and other courses, read a lot, and studies otherwise. A counselor at Tulane University told me once that life experience was the best education you can get. As an executive with Chrysler Corp. Space Division, I decided to take a GED test and was told by the instructor I scored the highest score he had seen on a GED test. I worked as a manager in computerized planning and scheduling in the aerospace, oil, construction, ship building, and defense industries, and had several employees with master degrees working for me. I later went on to own my own businesses. I am not saying this to brag in any way, just to show that college education is not always required to achieve success in a career. I often wondered why a college degree was required for many jobs where the work obviously did not require it.

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