Let’s Get Rid Of The BA Degree

Derek Thompson who writes for the Atlantic had an interesting post the other day that featured what he called “10 Crazy Ways For Fixing Our Education System.” It’s a good article and I recommend it but it was his ninth point that caught my attention. It suggested doing away with the BA degree.

The idea was actually promulgated by Charles Murray in the Wall Street Journal about a year ago. The premise is that the traditional Bachelors degree outside of a few of the hard science majors tells an employer virtually nothing about the capabilities of the holder of the degree. In lieu of the degree, Murray suggests that we develop a system of certifications. Once a student had received a certification in his or her chosen field they would have a demonstrable measure of their qualifications as a potential employee.

Murray uses the CPA certification as an example:

The model is the CPA exam that qualifies certified public accountants. The same test is used nationwide. It is thorough — four sections, timed, totaling 14 hours. A passing score indicates authentic competence (the pass rate is below 50%). Actual scores are reported in addition to pass/fail, so that employers can assess where the applicant falls in the distribution of accounting competence. You may have learned accounting at an anonymous online university, but your CPA score gives you a way to show employers you’re a stronger applicant than someone from an Ivy League school.

The merits of a CPA-like certification exam apply to any college major for which the BA is now used as a job qualification. To name just some of them: criminal justice, social work, public administration and the many separate majors under the headings of business, computer science and education. Such majors accounted for almost two-thirds of the bachelor’s degrees conferred in 2005. For that matter, certification tests can be used for purely academic disciplines. Why not present graduate schools with certifications in microbiology or economics — and who cares if the applicants passed the exam after studying in the local public library?

Now the CPA exam is not the perfect model. A quick Google search of a few state requirements revealed that you also need X number of hours of accredited courses but assume that sop to the university complex was eliminated then you would be nearing the right approach.

In an era of instantaneous access to information and online education, the traditional university with its inordinate investment in fixed assets is quickly becoming an anachronism, not to mention economically unsustainable. Young adults disappear into the maw for four years or more of aimless wandering among a host of disciplines and emerge, if they’re lucky, with little in the way of preparation for a career. The degree they carry signifies nothing other than a testament to the fact that they accumulated a certain number of hours of classroom instruction. Little need be said about the quality of that instruction or their mastery of the subjects given the insidiousness of grade inflation.

Taken to its logical conclusion, the concept should and could even be applied to candidates for advanced degrees. Once the artifice of the BA is erased then admission to a masters or doctoral program could and should be dependent on the demonstration of certain proficiencies. The amount of time that might need to be devoted to formal study at a university could be determined by the level of expertise already achieved and the time spent in securing the advanced degree might well be shortened measurably.

The natural obstacle to any sort of system that resembles this would be the existing college and university system. It’s become a beast with growth as its primary mission. The need for funding is immense and despite the princely sums that the federal and state governments advance to the system, students are increasingly forced to assume crushing debt burdens in order to secure their degrees. It seems incapable of controlling its costs at the same time it has become increasingly adept at tapping government for ever more dollars.

The Obama administration has, as one of its goals, universal college education or at least some semblance of that. How much more efficiently and at less cost might we be able to do this if we rethought the entire manner in which we deliver education and certify that students are indeed “educated.”

I really like this idea. I rather suspect that if some of the more advanced online universities took the idea and ran with it they might create a revolution. If you offer an employer the choice between a typical BA and an individual who has demonstrated and verifiable credentials for the job at hand, I think I know what the choice is likely to be.

Would it ever have a chance of working given the institutional push back? Doubtful, but let me know what you think.

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