The meaningless BA degree

Feb. 26, 2013
For those who have issues with the cost and quality of a college education today, there was some interesting commentary about BA degrees recently by Charles Murray, a political scientist best known for a book called The Bell Curve which talks about the ...

For those who have issues with the cost and quality of a college education today, there was some interesting commentary about BA degrees recently by Charles Murray, a political scientist best known for a book called The Bell Curve which talks about the role of human intelligence in society. Murray recently expounded on the BA degree. He claims it "wreaks harm on a majority of young people."

Speaking at the libertarian Cato Institute, Murray pointed out that about a third of all adults now have a BA degree. One outcome of this situation is that a BA is increasingly required just to get a job interview. So there has been an incentive for schools to just churn out BA graduates but with "no incentive to improve their product," he says.

"What do you know as an employer if a candidate walks in with a BA?" he asks. "...for the vast majority of undergraduate colleges and universities, you don't even know if that person can write a coherent sentence....The reality is that we have a piece of paper that for most students in most majors is close to meaningless."

The situation also harms kids, he says, because many of them who would be happier in trade school end up in a hopeless quest for work in professions such as law or medicine.

Murray's idea for solving this mess is to evolve toward a system where certification tests would replace a BA, in a manner analogous to the way accountants take a CPA exam (and, presumably, the way engineers take the PE exam).

The beauty of this idea, he says, is that "The (CPA) test is very thorough, and to achieve a passing score indicates authentic competence. Actual scores are reported, so that employers can assess where the applicant falls on the distribution of accounting capability....The greatest merit of my ideal system is this: hardly any jobs will still 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, and less on where it was learned or how long it took."

In a nutshell, he is basically advocating a return to a system that looks a lot like the apprentice-journeyman-craftsman order of things that described industrial society in days of old.

Murray's full comments can be found here: http://www.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/pubs/pdf/catosletter_winter2013_2.pdf

UPDATE: The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran a piece that relates to the idea of the BA degree as a basic requirement for employment. It also indirectly shows why an apprentice system might be a good thing -- right now, employers seem to be looking for 22-year-old college graduates who have ten years of experience, and they are annoyed when they can't find them: http://chronicle.com/article/The-Employment-Mismatch/137625

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