Magazine | October 5, 2009, Issue

College Lite

A look at the transformation the bachelor's degree has undergone, and the transformation it needs

Colleges continue organizing their programs around the old four-year bundle of general-education courses, a major, and some electives for two main reasons. First, it’s traditional — and colleges and universities tend to be tradition-bound. Second, they like to keep students enrolled and paying tuition as long as possible.

The four-year degree is an artifact of the days when only a small percentage of Americans, the ones who really prized learning, went to college. Most of the students who went were future clerics and scholars. Almost nobody went to college just for the sake of the credential. That began to change in the 1960s, with the surge in federal financial subsidies for college. Credential-seeking also got a big boost from the Supreme Court’s 1971 ruling in Griggs v. Duke Power, which made it legally dangerous for companies to do general-aptitude testing and led them to turn to other evaluative criteria, such as whether job applicants had degrees.

Now, all but the weakest high-school students are pressured into the pursuit of a B.A., and there’s such a glut that many employers require it just as a screening mechanism. As James Engell and Anthony Dangerfield wrote in their book Saving Higher Education in the Age of Money, “The United States has become the most rigidly credentialized society in the world. A B.A. is required for jobs that by no stretch of imagination need two years of full-time training, let alone four.”

In his book Real Education, Charles Murray put his finger on the problem: We’re trying to make the bachelor’s degree do things it was never meant to do. He approvingly quotes John Stuart Mill, who said universities have the object of making, not skillful workers, but “capable and cultivated human beings.”

The kind of liberal education that attains this object is quite different from occupational preparation and credentialing. It is rigorous and multidisciplinary, ideal for students who lust after knowledge but ill suited for young people who wish simply to have careers in accounting or marketing. Heavy scholastic work for them is as unnecessary as training to run a marathon.

Colleges know this, but instead of simply supplementing their traditional offerings with career-oriented programs that require less than four years, they’ve kept the B.A. framework and dumbed down the content. No more slogging through Kant, Melville, and the Federalist Papers; students can instead consume the educational equivalent of junk food, courses such as “Cyberporn and Society.” Many graduate with weak reading skills and scant knowledge of our history, politics, and economy. 

As Robert VerBruggen demonstrates elsewhere in this issue, many students would be better off skipping college altogether, and instead enrolling in two-year schools or training and certification programs. But even the traditional liberal-arts curriculum doesn’t need to take as long as it usually does. A few colleges now offer programs that stuff four years of coursework into three years. Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y., for instance, allows students to take 40 credits per year, in the belief that reducing by 25 percent the cost of a B.A. will entice those who face financial constraints. Cramming four years into three, however, has usually been an option in any case for students enrolled in four-year programs; former Florida governor Jeb Bush got his degree from the University of Texas in just two and a half. 

Also, since employers and post-college educational institutions usually don’t much care what someone studied so long as he shows a measure of ability, why insist on majors and minors? To law schools, for example, all that matters is demonstrated verbal and reasoning ability. An applicant can acquire these with a major in anything from accounting to zoology. Why insist on one at all?

There are insufficient alternatives to the traditional B.A. because our educational system is built upon the notion that the more time spent in classrooms, the better, and this makes it extremely hard for people to get a hearing for the case that college is often a poor choice. The consequence is that large numbers of Americans spend more time in postsecondary education than they need to and take many courses of no lasting benefit to them.

– Mr. Leef is the director of research at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.


George Leef — George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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