Phi Beta Cons

Why Go to College?

Today’s New York Post has a longish article expanding on a point we have often made at Phi Beta Cons: Too many people go to college. Jack Hough, an editor at SmartMoney, agrees with Charles Murray, Richard Vedder, the Spellings Commission, and others that most colleges today simply certify knowledge among their students, at a high cost, instead of imparting it.

Hough suggests cutting out the colleges, or at least making them optional, by certifying learning through a set of standardized tests (many of which already exist) and letting people decide for themselves how to acquire the necessary knowledge. Instead of saying, “I have a B.A. from such-and-such college,” a job applicant would present evidence of what he knew:

I can only guess what this knowledge transcript would look like — something like a résumé or credit report, perhaps. I picture a scrawny tree drawn on a page, with the branches representing the fields of learning and the student tasked with extending them. Perhaps vocational certificates would be listed, too. Maybe, once the tree reached a prescribed fatness, we’d call the student a bachelor of arts. But employers could select whatever tree shapes suited them, and college would no longer be a degree-or-nothing affair. Learning would be available everywhere and at a moment’s notice, and would be rewarded right away.

Not a bad idea, and of course employers who prefer a old-fashioned degree would be free to insist on one.

Given the size and power of the higher-education industry, as well as our nation’s uneasiness over the brutal honesty of testing, a system like the one Hough proposes seems unlikely to take hold anytime soon. In the long run, though, it seems inevitable that colleges will become just one of many options for students seeking higher education, instead of being the sine qua non.

Fred Schwarz — Fred Schwarz is a deputy managing editor of National Review.

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