Opinion / Politics

Making College Unnecessary for the Workplace Might Make it More Useful

AMAC Exclusive by David P. Deavel

collegeThis past week Joe Kent, a father, veteran, and Gold Star husband running for Congress in Washington State’s 3rd District, released a statement via Twitter titled: “Government Must Open Jobs to Non-Traditional Educational Backgrounds.” I’m a professor who is financially invested in having students do a four-year degree, but I agree with the candidate on the main premise. Four-year college isn’t for everybody and it generally should not be a requirement for most jobs. And the more American government and corporations stop relying on the possession of a four-year degree, the better those institutions—and American higher ed—will be.

I don’t agree with all of Mr. Kent’s rhetoric here. He argues that someone who studied “poetry for four years” should not be given priority over a person who started out on the factory floor and worked up to a managerial position. The problem is not that Americans are prioritizing talented scholars of poetry over those in the real world. A true liberal arts education is a good preparation for a great variety of jobs in the real world where the question is not technical skills but the ability to think critically, take in large amounts of information from different fields of knowledge, and communicate well. We might well benefit in a technical age from more poetry than less. Microsoft president Brad Smith argued a few years ago that “as computers behave more like humans, the social sciences and humanities will become even more important. Languages, art, history, economics, ethics, philosophy, psychology and human development courses can teach critical, philosophical and ethics-based skills that will be instrumental in the development and management of AI solutions.”

The problem is that American higher education, absent a few bright spots, has been doing a dismal job of producing students who have the kind of cultivation and knowledge that four-year degree recipients should have. Richard Arum, co-author of Academically Adrift, a 2011 analysis of the failures of our colleges and universities, spoke of some of the findings he and co-author Josipa Roksa had documented in an interview. Fifty percent of students reported that they did not have a class in which they were required to write 20 pages in a semester and one-third reported that they had no class requiring forty pages of reading per week. By 2011 students were reporting that they were studying about fifty percent less than a generation before.

As he summarized, college was producing very little in the way of “critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills” in its graduates. While a 2019 study showed some improvements in the number of hours students reported studying over the last decade, too few college students were really doing the work. And as Arum observed, there wasn’t that much work to do for too many.

Though a good college education should be providing those thinking, reasoning, and writing skills, the reality is that they often do not. Recent research has shown that many business leaders have come to doubt that the symbol of the college diploma has much reality behind it.  A number of big-name companies, including Hilton, Tesla, Apple, Alphabet, and J. P. Morgan, have all loosened their requirements for a bachelor’s degree. Parents and students are starting to react, too. This year’s drop in undergraduate enrollment was especially steep—5% from spring 2020—but numbers have been trending down since 2012.

This is why it is good that candidate Kent has been calling for the federal government to catch up. But he’s not the first to do so. A year ago President Trump signed an executive order directing the federal government to revise its hiring based on “the principle that employment and advancement rest on the ability of individuals to fulfill their responsibilities in service to the American public.” Thus, merit rather than simply credentials should be the governing standard.

The order noted that this would bring the federal government in line with what many of those corporations are already doing and commanded that agencies only require bachelor’s or other degrees when they are legally required and that they only take such degrees into account when they demonstrate skills required for the particular jobs. If moved upon, such a change would indeed accomplish a great deal in terms of bringing more people from more diverse—both racially and socio-economically— backgrounds into the federal government. With their broader array of experiences and skills, a new crop of people in public service might make some progress on bridging what Mr. Kent calls the “severe social and cultural disconnect between the policy makers in D.C. and the people they are responsible for serving.”

So far, President Biden has not rescinded this order, but it is far from clear that anything ever came of it within the federal government. The order dictated that the changes be complete within six months, but by December 26 the Trump administration had other things on its mind. It would be a good thing if Mr. Kent’s rallying cry became the rallying cry of a great many others.

If the federal government and more businesses start to make it clear that credentials simply aren’t enough, it could have a profound impact not only on our government and our economy but on the flailing American higher education scene as well. University administrators might be forced to pull back on the promotion of progressive activism and the amenities such as climbing walls, which add expense and provide little (or negative) value to student education and go back to holding students accountable to actually learn how to think and write in ways that will make a college degree something that does add to a job candidate’s luster.

David P. Deavel is editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, co-director of the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy, and a visiting professor at the University of St. Thomas (MN). He is the co-host of the Deep Down Things podcast.

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Ron Howard
2 months ago

I officially had only a ninth grade education, but took a lot of college and other courses, read a lot, and studies otherwise. A counselor at Tulane University told me once that life experience was the best education you can get. As an executive with Chrysler Corp. Space Division, I decided to take a GED test and was told by the instructor I scored the highest score he had seen on a GED test. I worked as a manager in computerized planning and scheduling in the aerospace, oil, construction, ship building, and defense industries, and had several employees with master degrees working for me. I later went on to own my own businesses. I am not saying this to brag in any way, just to show that college education is not always required to achieve success in a career. I often wondered why a college degree was required for many jobs where the work obviously did not require it.

Jeanette
2 months ago

We should rethink educational years with considering if 4 years is even necessary for some careers. For medical most certainly the years are needed but not for every other job. Trades should also be encouraged.

Bill on the Hill
2 months ago

Trump was on the right track, hire according to merits earned, not a piece of paper that shows you are a college graduate…Trump has spoken about trades & learning these trades as apprentices…
Trade schools are an excellent way to get an individual into a trade without the requirements of a college degree…My own father went to trade school back in the 30’s. He never got that college degree, yet he was a successful businessman. I know people personally in the trades, yes they graduated from high school, but they are successful carpenters, electricians, plumbers & some are automotive technicians & making considerably more money than your typical college graduate earns.
There is nothing wrong with attending college, however, simply put, college is NOT for everyone…
Bill on the Hill… :~)

John Karkalis
2 months ago

Bill, if I had a leak that threatened my house and possessions the most important person in my life would be an experienced certified plumber.
If by chance the plumber knew coding or differential equations, fine, but that’s not the reason I would need him.

Mike
2 months ago

Reminds me of the old joke: the heart surgeon calls a plumber who repairs the leak in 15 minutes and charges $200. “I’m a heart surgeon and I don’t make $800 an hour!” Plumber replies, “I was a heart surgeon, I didn’t make $800 an hour either!”

charlesw04
2 months ago

Growing up in classrooms where everyone received a gold star for participation has given them false expectations. Those with conservative up bringing will likely survive this invisible barrier by starting at or close to the bottom of their chosen field. Those who expect to start at the top will learn how to negotiate food stamp lines long before they learn to stand on line to cash a paycheck.

There needs to be a rating system for degrees based on usefulness in the business world. Obviously anybody working toward a liberal arts degree is destined to be disappointed, as compared to a degree in and engineering field. Reality will always be counted on to bite you in the ass.

MariaRose
2 months ago

Too many people have assumed that a college degree guarantees them a high salary position that is above entry level work, without any experience in that specific job. The only college degrees that give you that “push” comes after doing working internship at the job, where one learns the job. You don’t get that experience by heavy partying and low barely passing grades. I think that you can get a college degree with minimum passing grades. Okay some people are not classroom geniuses but you do have to develop those critical thinking processes. Otherwise don’t waste time and money paying for college if your dream job is becoming a social influencer, because that’s just knowing how to make people think that you are important by pretending that you are.

Lynn
2 months ago

Affirmative action and limits on free speech in the colleges/universities have all contributed to the devaluation of higher education, not just this woke nonsense. This has been going on for many years culminating in our present situation. Good education has to start at home and later in elementary grades for it to matter in high school then college.

I had a Russian born friend who came to USA years ago with children born in Odessa. Both kids became professionals. The younger one went to Cornell after graduating 2nd from top by fractions of a point. He called his mother at work one day to say there was a minority kid in a class with him who was admitted with only an 85% average! I explained to her about this and other strange phenomena about American justice, for instance, that she never could wrap here head around because it was all so illogical.

Oren
2 months ago

This argument won’t hold up in the field of engineering. Liberal Arts yes.. I would not want to be on a bridge, and airplane, a ship, just about anything requiring the engineering design expertise of an experienced licensed engineer. Acceptance of a “diverse” background for a lead design engineer just doesn’t cut it. There are too many examples of design failure as it is even with the mountains of requirements. I cannot imagine the result of a high rise building being designed by the unqualified Might look pleasing to the eye until it collapsed. But we have an example of that in Miami already.

Brian
2 months ago
Reply to  Oren

Which was presumably designed by formally educated and licensed engineers.

charlesw04
2 months ago
Reply to  Brian

It’s far too early to lay that one on the engineers. My guess is that crooked contractors using substandard materials and techniques aligned with incompetent or crooked inspectors are responsible for Miami. It will probably be a couple of years before investigation and testing reveal anything useful.

John Karkalis
2 months ago
Reply to  Oren

Agreed, Oren, I certainly would not want to drive over a bridge designed by one whose principle claim to mastery of his field is that slippery term, “diversity”. I would like to be assured that he showed competence in structural engineering and strength of materials.
At the same time I certainly wouldn’t fault him if he had a fondness for literature, history, and philosophy, the core of a liberal education, arguably subjects that contribute to a supple, flexible mind.

Bill on the Hill
2 months ago
Reply to  Oren

Oren, point well taken, however on your closing remark I will chime in: The surfside building & the remaining buildings that still stand, are only as strong as the foundations themselves that they sit on, i.e. my theory is this building collapsed due to soil liquification…One need only look at the buildings footprint to that of the ocean itself. The structure itself had some maintenance issues as well or lack thereof… This is basic engineering that applies to many applications, i.e. bridges, highways, cliffside homes, etc. i.e. see California…
Bill on the Hill… :~)

Jeanne
2 months ago

Having a degree doesn’t necessarily qualify a person for a job over someone who has experience and a degree or not. Putting recent college grads in a position of authority over mature, experienced workers is not productive. Experience matters. Everyone can’t be the boss. They have no common sense about this. Just trying to sell college to all is ridiculous. It does not guarantee success. Content of character is not being considered and sets up age bias. Many college Grads are woefully ignorant of workplace integrity.

charlesw04
2 months ago
Reply to  Jeanne

I have experienced many an engineer in the field take a pounding for refusing to listen to the advice of seasoned craftsmen. Those with the big attitude are the easiest (and most enjoyable) to let fail. They never see it coming.

Ron Howard
2 months ago
Reply to  charlesw04

It reminds me of what my father, who was a still foreman, and night superintendent for 42 years at Phillips Petroleum used to say, “engineers are always coming around with theoretical solutions which fail on application”.

Bill on the Hill
2 months ago
Reply to  Jeanne

Jeanne… Over educated idiots come to mind here… I agree, ” experience matters. ”
Bill on the Hill… :~)

Barb
2 months ago

I couldn’t agree more. College professors no longer educate, instead they indoctrinate!

tmoorman
2 months ago

I agree with the message Mr. Deavel presents but this should be done in high school. I taught for a while in a community college and was appalled at the number of high school grads that could not compose a good sentence . They were used to T&F, Multiple Choice, etc questions. Most were challenged to answer a simple essay question. A term paper was a disaster for them. By contrast older students who were in their 40’s, 50’s, while slow to remember their high school education, soon became he best students in the class. They had the education in high school and it came back to them. I think college is far to late to take high school classes.

John Karkalis
2 months ago
Reply to  tmoorman

I agree, college is not the place for honing skills that should have been mastered in high school.
My degree is in a hard science, but I would hate to see the “liberal arts” give way entirely to a STEM curriculum.
The arts teach critical thinking, a faculty seriously lacking in today’s discourse, from social media to the halls of Congress.
History allows us a mooring, the ability to place ourselves in time.
Literature exposes us to the wonder of words and concepts, a discipline that no algorithm can match.
I would have all corporate recruiters treat the liberal arts degree holder as one with a supple, flexible mind.

pstierle
2 months ago
Reply to  tmoorman

Thank you..As one of those older (50’s) who entered City College at 55..had to take remedial subjects for my first quarter, then this “C” student of the 1950’s made it to the Dean’s list within 2 semesters…

Lee S McQuillen
2 months ago
Reply to  pstierle

Congratulations! I, too, went to college late and found the ignorance or the young students mind-boggling! Their degrees won’t really be worth much as many seemed to spend their “off” time partying and not studying – criticizing the professors who were actually very good when I took their classes. Everyone gets a trophy – what a crock!

Ron Howard
2 months ago
Reply to  pstierle

Congratulations, pstierle. I will soon be 90, and none of my 8 children attended college, but have done well in their chosen careers.

Bill on the Hill
2 months ago
Reply to  tmoorman

tmoorman… Your comment is the one that sticks…Kids entering college today, not all of them thank goodness are woefully ill prepared as many barely have an 8th grade level of understanding anything…
Bill on the Hill… :~)

Ron Howard
2 months ago
Reply to  tmoorman

I find that some high school grads cannot make change at the store without a cash register or computer.

Stephen Russell
2 months ago

College reuses:
Expand STEM courses
Expand Voc./Tech Ed
Adult Education
Reuse other campus for TV & Film production
Housing
Put Library into City, County system
Business Services
Hospital?
Rent office space
Museum
Business Seedbed
Nationwide by Need, locale, local use

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