Is A College Degree Really Worth It?

This is something I've believed for a long time: for most people college is a waste of time.

Imagine that America had no system of post-secondary education, and you were a member of a task force assigned to create one from scratch. One of your colleagues submits this proposal:

First, we will set up a single goal to represent educational success, which will take four years to achieve no matter what is being taught. We will attach an economic reward to it that seldom has anything to do with what has been learned. We will urge large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability to try to achieve the goal, wait until they have spent a lot of time and money, and then deny it to them. We will stigmatize everyone who doesn't meet the goal. We will call the goal a "BA."

You would conclude that your colleague was cruel, not to say insane. But that's the system we have in place.

Outside a handful of majors -- engineering and some of the sciences -- a bachelor's degree tells an employer nothing except that the applicant has a certain amount of intellectual ability and perseverance. Even a degree in a vocational major like business administration can mean anything from a solid base of knowledge to four years of barely remembered gut courses.

The solution is not better degrees, but no degrees. Young people entering the job market should have a known, trusted measure of their qualifications they can carry into job interviews. That measure should express what they know, not where they learned it or how long it took them. They need a certification, not a degree.

The CPA exam is one example used to illustrate how certification would serve much better than a degree. Anyone can take the CPA exam. Anyone passing it has proven they know what they're doing. Plenty of people with degrees in Accounting, even from prestigious institutions of higher learning, fail the CPA exam. The degree doesn't mean you know your supposed area of expertise. Certification does.

I've known plenty of people with engineering degrees incapable of designing or analyzing designs worth a darn, and plenty of people without engineering degrees that were the best damn engineers I've ever had the privilege of knowing or working with. Engineering has something similar to the CPA called PE, or Professional Engineer. Like the CPA exam, it is a standardized exam that certifies the engineer is indeed a master in their field. It is not an easy exam to pass. If you pass it, you've proven you know your subject and can add the coveted P.E. after their name. (In case you're wondering, I have not taken the PE. I'm pretty decent engineer and I make a good living from it, but I doubt I'd pass it the first ten or twenty times I take it.)

There are plenty of people out there with college degrees that, once they have them, end up working so far outside their field of study it seems the degrees they have aren't worth they paid to get them. It's like the old joke that goes something like this:

The scientist asks “What laws of nature define why this happens and can I recreate it?”

The engineer asks, “How can I make this work?”

The marketer asks, “How many of these can I sell and for what kind of profit margin?”

The person with the BA in English asks “Do you want fries with that?”

Yes, it's silly, overblown, and does not reflect reality...or at least it didn't only a few decades or so ago. So many people have degrees they spent four years and a lot of money to obtain, yet they haven't necessarily opened the doors to success that so many of us have been told will open once we have a degree. In reality, the degrees mean nothing. It's what you know. It doesn't matter how you came about that knowledge or experience, only that you have it. That should be the real criteria for so many of the so-called professional jobs out there. Certification is one way to prove that you do have that knowledge and/or experience.

Is it likely changing to certification rather than a degree will ever come to be? I doubt it. But it is something worth thinking about. And it might save a lot of people four years worth of time and money that could be better used to actually learn what it is they need to know.

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