Sacrilege: a BA is not for everyone?
Posted by David N. Bass at 1:55 PM
I’m fascinated by social science and education research on the under-30-years-old demographic. My latest foray into this world came from reading Charles Murray’s Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality. I recommend the book.
Murray makes some controversial but important observations about post-secondary education. His arguments about the academic value of a college education versus its value in the marketplace are pertinent. He also makes the (seemingly) outrageous statement that not every high school student in America should go on to college and get a bachelor’s degree. Not all kids have the smarts or desire to get through college, Murray says:
The problem begins with the message sent to young people that they should aspire to college no matter what. Some politicians are among the most visible offenders, treating every failure to go to college as an injustice that can be remedied by increasing government help. American educational administrators reinforce the message by instructing guidance counselors to steer as many students as possible towards a college-prep track (more than 90 percent of high-school students report their guidance counselors encouraged them to go to college). But politicians and educators are only following the lead of the larger culture. As long as it remains taboo to acknowledge that college is intellectually too demanding for most young people, we will continue to create crazily unrealistic expectations among the next generation. If “crazily unrealistic” sounds too strong, consider that more than 90 percent of high school seniors expect to go to college, and more than 70 percent of them expect to work in professional jobs.
Murray goes on to poke holes in the notion that college is an idealistic atmosphere where young people transition from adolescents to adulthood:
The light workload alone can make college a joke. Students have a wide choice of easy courses and easy majors, and many students don’t do the work that even these require. The most recent (2007) survey conducted by the National Survey of Student Engagement showed a self-reported average of only about fourteen hours per week spent studying, about half the hours that faculty say is necessary to do well in their classes.
Many of Murray’s observations tally with my recent experience in college. Employers typically use a BA as a screening device for professional jobs, but it doesn’t say much beyond the applicant’s ability to stick it out four years (or five or six in some cases). A degree, especially in non-technical fields, says very little about actual knowledge acquired anymore. That’s a damning indictment of the post-secondary system.
I also appreciate Murray’s argument that not everyone should go to college. In my view, college has been the default button for high school students far too long. A bachelor’s degree is not right for everyone. I have several friends who never attended college, instead interning in their chosen field, and today they are very successful entrepreneurs earning close to six figures while still their 20s. A college degree would have gotten them nothing and merely wasted years that could be spent better investing directly in their chosen field.
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