Quit using the college degree as a job qualification

College Diploma In a Dec. 28 NY Times commentary titled Should the Obama Generation Drop Out?, Charles Murrary argues that “It’s what you can do that should count when you apply for a job, not where you learned to do it.” I know it might be heresy here in the land of cows, colleges and contentment but I tend to agree. Like Murray, I think many employers already believe that a bachelor’s degree has “become education’s Wizard of Oz.” He writes:


For most of the nation’s youths, making the bachelor’s degree a job qualification means demanding a credential that is beyond their reach. It is a truth that politicians and educators cannot bring themselves to say out loud: A large majority of young people do not have the intellectual ability to do genuine college-level work.

There are a couple pages of comments from readers on a page titled Should a College Degree Be Essential? Excerpts from two letters I like:

A greater emphasis on specific job skills in traditional high school education is needed. Language and mathematics will remain the pillars of our liberal academic institutions, but we also need carpenters, plumbers, electricians, machinists and more. Our schools should emphasize job skills for those not suited to traditional academic education.


Finally, someone dared to say what every college professor knows in her heart: half the students in her classroom shouldn’t be there and don’t want to be there. We have created this B.A.-B.S. grail for millions of students who would be far better educated if they could focus on something that they want to learn.

For 12 years, I was a professor of English at the flagship campus of a big state university. My students were majoring in computers, nursing, landscape design and kinesiology. They didn’t care about “Beowulf” or John Milton. The university wanted them there, however, because more four-year graduates meant more money from the legislature. Now we can no longer tolerate such waste.

We should redesign college curriculums so that students can study something useful, get a job and help redevelop the economy.


  1. David Koenig said:


    Not all jobs require a college education. Perhaps its even most jobs.

    However, when a business is hiring an employee for their first job, there is a great deal of uncertainty about whether that person will be successful. There are both upside and downside risks that both parties have to manage.

    From the employer’s standpoint, a degree from a well-regarded institution is one data point that helps to reduce the downside risk to hiring someone.

    From the employee’s standpoint, all else equal, a person is worth more to the company if the downside risk has been reduced….which is why people are paid more if they graduate from better schools.

    The degree is of increased importance if there is less information about the candidate (such as a lack of previous opportunities to successfully demonstrate their skills). It is of less importance if the person has a well-established track record of success.

    This is a long-winded way of saying that, yes, you will be paid more if you have a college degree, you will be paid more if it is from an institution with a strong reputation and especially if you did well there.

    In many businesses, a Master’s Degree has become the Bachelor’s Degree of old, meaning it’s now the minimum expectation.

    February 4, 2009
  2. Anthony Pierre said:

    Using a degree as a litmus test of ability to do a job is about as naive as thinking a former president’s son could do the job of the president. We all know how that ended.

    February 4, 2009
  3. Bright Spencer said:

    I think the way David K explains the hiring of grads is mostly true and mostly the lazy person’s way of doing business. There are many ways of interviewing and testing a person to find out what they know and what they are willing and able to do to ready themselves for many job skills…as well as reliability. Plus there is the thirty day trial system.
    As a successful example of the programs needed for more worldy applications of knowledge and energy,
    since 1940 in Chicago, there is a vocational school where teens get training in construction, nursing, design and much more, see:

    February 4, 2009
  4. Curt Benson said:

    Here’s an article with a similar viewpoint:


    I know that a liberal arts education from a highly regarded college is of great value to some. But I think too many regard it as a necessity. And I think $50K/year is shameful. $50K yearly is the moral equivalent of driving a hummer or giving bonuses to failing bankers.

    I believe the current and coming hard times will require a complete re tooling of the current liberal arts education model.

    February 4, 2009
  5. Elizabeth Mitchell said:

    As a student at St.Olaf who also likes cows and contentment, I have to say I think the problem with this article is it’s missing the point. My parents don’t have money, and most of my friends’ parents don’t either. At the same time, a lot of us are here because we want to be, well, smarter. We want to be intelligent citizens. I’m not saying college is the only way a person can become intelligent. What I am saying is that the reason most high school grads couldn’t complete an education like the one I’m hopefully getting is because our society in general discounts not a college education,but education in general. People don’t read, people don’t learn new things unless they have to, and even among people still in college, anyone who has more interest in math than to balance their checkbook is a “nerd.” Discount a college education too much, and there might not be anyone left to do the educating.

    February 4, 2009
  6. Anthony Pierre said:


    Education is very important and there is a big difference between Degrees and Education.

    For example, you could educate yourself how write c code, and most likely be better at it than someone with a degree.

    BTW um ya ya ’95

    February 4, 2009
  7. Randy Jennings said:

    A liberal arts education from a highly regarded college is of value to some, and worth the $40-50K a year it costs. And it really costs that much to deliver a certain kind of educational experience. But that’s only one small part of the spectrum of higher education. Granted it is often what comes to mind when we think “college,” in part because we have two excellent examples here in town, and in part because a traditional liberal arts education can be a really terrific experience for a student with wide-ranging curiosities.

    There are a few hundred of the iconic, residential liberal arts schools; there are several thousand other institutions of post-secondary education, including vocational schools, community colleges, state colleges and universities, conservatories, and even online universities. These forms of education have widely varying costs. There is a good education available to any student, with any interest, at any price point. Just because you don’t think a liberal arts education is worth the expense, doesn’t make it “shameful.”

    I think Elizabeth hit the nail on the head above. A liberal arts education fosters thinking citizens. One hopes the critical thinking skills one gains will lead to employment, and to the flexibility to keep gaining new skills to stay employed. Some years ago I interviewed a number of corporate execs for an article on job prospects for liberal arts grads. To a person they said that their companies hired workers with specific skills for “functional” jobs, but that they looked for liberal arts grads for management. The general consensus was that liberal arts degrees, regardless of major, prepared people to think about the problems ahead, not just the solution or techniques at hand.

    Interesting that Griff holds Charles Murray up with such appreciation. Murray was pretty thoroughly discredited after publication of the Bell Curve, (see this piece from media transparency on Murray’s history of funding from far right-wing think tanks and Nicholas Lehman’s refutation of Murray’s methodology in this 1997 article published in Slate). The excerpts from his latest diatribe published in the WSJ and the NYT seem to be pretty much the same story. Anyone who fears Locally Grown is the “liberal” blog can rest easy.

    February 4, 2009
  8. Peter Millin said:

    We are short changing those who are not academically strong, but would be well suited for a trade career.
    There is no true alternative path within our current system that promotes this.

    In has also a negative effect on those who are strong in and desire an academic challenge.
    In the desire to have everybody pass on the same academic we have created a “one fits all” curriculum.
    Which gives the weaker students a chance to pass high school, but doesn’t challenge strong students enough.

    February 4, 2009
  9. Tracy Davis said:

    Did anyone see David Leonhardt’s piece, “The Big Fix”, in this week’s NY Times Sunday magazine? The section entitled “GRADUATES EQUAL GROWTH” is germane to this discussion.

    February 5, 2009
  10. Britt Ackerman said:

    I find it ironic that Murray’s article bemoans the use of an advanced degree as a job qualification–this from a man with degrees from Harvard and MIT. Is he certain that he’s achieved success from his skills alone, or is it possible that his degrees gave him an advantage? Would he have the capacity to think logically and write well if he didn’t pursue higher education? Would he have a solid grasp of world history, philosophy, and industry, and be able to compare and contrast ideas using different perspectives?

    One might not be more qualified for a job because of their degree, but obtaining a degree shows employers that you have certain strengths.

    The ability to write well, to use rhetoric and logic appropriately, to work well in groups, to meet deadlines, and so on and so forth, can be inferred from your graduate and post-graduate work.

    Murray loves performance tests; he credits his SAT test results for his success. I do well in such tests as well, but that’s not to say that I think those tests are true indicators of a person’s intelligence and/or aptitude. So, it’s easy to say that certification tests are the answer…but who writes and scores the tests? Such tests stifle the imagination and creativity that made this country great.

    Murray seems to favor the German model of education; this is interesting to me. In Germany, kids are funneled into either Gymnasium (pre-professional)or Realschule (trade school) by the age of 12. The decision of whether a student is fit for higher education or trade school is made by the teachers based on the students’ test scores and perceived aptitudes. The theory is, that by age 12, you can pretty much tell where a child’s strengths lie.

    There’s nothing inherently wrong with this system, but it’s somewhat anti-American to pigeonhole children. Goes against the “you can do anything you put your mind to if you work hard” mantra.

    But in Germany, skilled workers are not only paid decent wages, they are entitled to decent benefits as well.

    Perhaps Murray’s article reflects the realization that we are in a post-industrial phase; our economy is more service-industry driven now than ever. Manufacturing and industry is way, way down. More service industry workers are needed than engineers; who needs a degree to make a latte at Starbucks?

    It is the “American” creativity, ingenuity, entrepreneurial spirit, and individuality which has historically made our country great. (And no, I hate Ayn Rand’s philosophy.) Losing that is to lose our advantage.

    Higher education isn’t to blame for this sad economic trend. And the answer isn’t to pigeonhole our students with a “I know you want to be a doctor, Bobby, but what do you think about auto body technician instead? Because frankly, some pompous ass thinks you’re too dumb to read and have no potential for future success…after all, you’re already 12.”

    February 5, 2009
  11. Bright Spencer said:

    It is possible to teach children how to go about solving problems using the various types of reasoning. Our US system spends too much time teaching how to think and then hides the actual knowledge that is to be built upon so that they can resell it over and over again. If we shared knowledge more freely, more people could be more educated and more things could be built or invented better. I think our system holds people back, does not treat students as adults until they are in their late 20s. We are coddled, spoiled and duped all at once.
    Thank goodness for the internet, as it opens up some portals.
    And I apologize for being so dramatic, but I am trying to make a big point in a short time. I do appreciate the fact that Abe Lincoln needs at least 3,000 books about him to get to the truth of his life and that means 1500 scholars or so. And I understand that Chuck Close could not have possibly created those extra large portraits had he never seen a Renoir. Or that composite technology materials could not have been invented in a barn, so yes there is a need for formal education, but could we possibly expedite it?

    February 5, 2009
  12. Andy Unseth said:

    College degrees are not always the ticket to positions, but they do carry cache when looking at qualified individuals. The degree becomes the hinge on which individuals can leverage new careers. The base of knowledge gained from a good education provides the basis for career change if the individual finds themselves in need of change.

    In the end, I love my plumber, carpenter, HVAC tech, and the others who provide me with expert services. I just never want to see someone become a hair stylist or garbage collector because they have no other option. I want to see people doing what they love. Let’s make sure we encourage people to learn enough so that they know they’re not missing out on life merely because they don’t have the knowledge base to compete.

    February 18, 2009
  13. Griff Wigley said:

    Yesterday’s Talk of the Nation on NPR had a 30 minute segment titled Who Needs College, And Who Shouldn’t Go? (read the text transcript or listen to the audio).

    Many parents and teachers view college as the natural path to success. But diplomas are getting more expensive, and many people succeed without a bachelor’s degree. Guests address the value of a college degree, and whether the fields projected to grow require them.

    November 24, 2009