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Attack on the BA, Part 4

Posted on October 17th, 2008, by Leave a comment

The third response to Murray is by Kevin Carey, titled The Best of American Opportunity


…There is a very high evidentiary bar for asserting, as Charles Murray does, that “the BA is the work of the devil.” It is a bar he does not come close to clearing. But in trying, he raises some important points about the flaws and failures of our higher education system. We don’t need fewer bachelor’s degrees. But we do need better bachelor’s degrees, and in this respect Murray’s arguments have value. 

Murray would replace much of our current higher education system with a massive regime of workplace certification via standardized testing… In Murray’s preferred future, students could bypass a traditional college education and go right to the test.

But that begs a question: If businesses would be better off under such a system, why haven’t they implemented it already? … Tests, after all, are cheap compared to the cost of recruiting and retaining talented employees.

Of course, none of these things are actually happening, and for good reason: Employers value the bachelor’s degree, and most professions aren’t as easily definable—and thus testable—as accounting…

the main benefit of a good college education: It teaches students not how to do but how to think in ways that are applicable across varied careers. And such skills are much more important to many more people now than they were eighty years ago. The future economy will hold vast numbers of jobs that have yet to be invented. The bachelor’s degree will qualify students to pursue all of them… while a narrowly defined certificate, by definition, will not…

Murray points to the large number of students who drop out of college as evidence that we are cruelly forcing students to waste time and money pursuing a goal they are intellectually incapable of achieving. But … Most students who drop out don’t fail out… teaching is an afterthought in many colleges and universities… The problem often is not that academic standards are too high but too low, resulting in boring, unfulfilling courses that students conclude they can do without.

And it is in this last area that Murray’s essay… touches on some very legitimate areas of concern. It’s true that our higher education system is not serving the interests of many students. Not because it encourages them to earn a bachelors degree, but because it does a poor job of helping them succeed. Colleges are not judged by how well they teach students…

… Murray is correct that all programs don’t have to take four years. (European universities are rapidly coalescing around a three-year standard.) … There are many students out there majoring in business, education, social work, etc. who aren’t learning very much about those things, and the same is true for the classic liberal arts.

But the solution isn’t to divert those students into a huge testing and certification apparatus that would cripple a higher education system that remains, for all its flaws, a bulwark of the economy and the envy of the world. Instead, we should ensure that students learn more in college by keeping higher education affordable and holding colleges and universities accountable for how much students learn and whether they eventually succeed in the workforce and life. The bachelor’s degree represents the best of American opportunity, a vehicle for social and economic advancement that has produced fantastic dividends for our economy, citizenry, and society. We need to make it better, not tear it down.

Up next, the follow up commentary.