Beware the BA Diploma

W. H. Brady Scholar
Charles Murray
Four years of college makes sense for students who are trying to get a liberal education and need to take courses in philosophy, religion, classical and modern literature, the fine arts, classical and modern history, plus acquire fluency in a foreign language and take survey courses in the social sciences. For everyone else, four years is ridiculous. Even medical school and PhDs don't require four years of course work.

For the student who wants to become a good hotel manager, software designer, accountant, hospital administrator, farmer, high-school teacher, social worker, journalist, optometrist, interior designer or football coach, the classes needed for the academic basis for competence take a year or two.

The bachelor of arts does confer a wage premium on its average recipient, but there is no good reason that it should.

Actually becoming good at one's job usually takes longer than that, but competence in any profession is mostly acquired on the job. The two-year community college and online courses offer more flexible options than the four-year college for tailoring academic course work to the real needs of students.

The bachelor of arts does confer a wage premium on its average recipient, but there is no good reason that it should. First, consider professions in which the material learned in college is useful for job performance, such as engineering, the sciences and business majors.

Take the specific case of accounting. It is possible to get a BA in accounting. There is also the CPA exam required to become a Certified Public Accountant. The CPA test is thorough (four sections, timed, totaling fourteen hours). To achieve a passing score indicates authentic competence.

If I am an employer of accountants and am given the choice between an applicant with a mediocre CPA score but a BA in accounting and another who studied accounting online, has no degree, but does have a terrific CPA score, explain to me why should I be more attracted to the applicant with the BA.

The merits of the CPA exam apply to any college major for which the BA is now used as a job qualification. To name just some of them: journalism, criminal justice, social work, public administration and the many separate majors under business, computer science, engineering and education. In every one of those cases, a good certification test would tell employers more about the applicant's skills than the BA.

Now consider job applicants for whom the material learned in college is, to put it charitably, only indirectly related to job performance. I am referring to people like me (BA in Russian History) and BAs in political science, sociology, English lit, the fine arts, and philosophy, not to mention the flakier majors (e.g., gender studies).

For people like us, presenting a BA to employers amounts to presenting them with a coarse indicator of our intelligence and perseverance. If we have gone to an elite college, it is mostly an indicator of what terrific students we were in high school (getting into Harvard and Duke is tough, but getting through Harvard and Duke for students not in math or science is easy).

Occasionally, college does teach students to become more rigorous thinkers and writers, and those are useful assets to take into a job. But employers also know that it would be foolish to assume that the typical college graduate has sought out the most demanding teachers and slaved over the syntax and logic of his term papers.

The much more certain implication of the BA is that its possessors have a certain amount of raw intellectual ability that the employer may be able to exploit after the proper job training.

In my ideal system, colleges will still be filled with students. Some of those will be staying four years as before, but many others will be arriving and leaving on schedules that make sense for their own goals. Hardly any jobs will have the BA as a requirement for a fair shot at being hired. Employers will rely more on direct evidence about what the job candidate knows, less on where it was learned or how long it took.

Here's the reality: Everyone in every occupation starts as an apprentice. Those who are good enough become journeymen. The best become master craftsmen. This is as true of history professors and business executives as of chefs and welders.

Getting rid of the BA and replacing it with evidence of competence--treating post-secondary education as apprenticeships for everyone--is one way to help us to recognize that common bond.

Charles Murray is the W. H. Brady Scholar at AEI.

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