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Charles Murray – For Most People, College Is a Waste of Time

Last week we noted the thoughts of Professor David Wiley of Brigham Young who had the audacity to suggest that higher education could be on the verge of irrelevance. The day after we posted his summary, social scientist Charles Murray authored an op ed piece for the Wall Street Journal that also criticized higher education as it is currently designed.

For Most, College Is a Waste of Time” proved to be a strong rebuke of the current college structure. The piece was not new ground for Murray. The W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute has been a consistent critic of the current higher education format.

Last fall, we noted Murray’s prior work in three separate posts, “Eliminate the SAT,” “Half of All Children Are Below Average,” and “Too Many Americans Are Going to College.” While some are quick to dismiss Murray as simply being “anti-college,” the fact is Murray has taken a strong stance against the current one-size-fits-all path that America promotes, a path that states a four-year college degree is the only worthy avenue for furthering one’s education.

Defining Educational Success for Students
Of today’s university structure, Murray writes:

“First, we … set up a single goal to represent educational success, which will take four years to achieve no matter what is being taught. We … attach an economic reward to it that seldom has anything to do with what has been learned. We … urge large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability to try to achieve the goal, wait until they have spent a lot of time and money, and then deny it to them. We … stigmatize everyone who doesn’t meet the goal. We … call the goal a ‘BA’.”

Murray goes on to call the current structure “cruel” and “insane” though he acknowledges that there may be merit in the current system for those who seek credentials in certain fields. However, in his eyes it is a limited set of study options:

“Outside a handful of majors — engineering and some of the sciences — a bachelor’s degree tells an employer nothing except that the applicant has a certain amount of intellectual ability and perseverance. Even a degree in a vocational major like business administration can mean anything from a solid base of knowledge to four years of barely remembered gut courses.”

Murray’s solution is simple in concept yet would require a complete revamping of the current college structure.

Certifications Should Replace Degrees
“The solution is not better degrees, but no degrees. Young people entering the job market should have a known, trusted measure of their qualifications they can carry into job interviews. That measure should express what they know, not where they learned it or how long it took them. They need a certification, not a degree.”

Murray seeks a model similar to that of the licensure exam accountants take to become a CPA. The key is to create a method for documenting mastery of a certain body of knowledge or a defined set of skills. Murray insists that by creating a set of true credentials, the college playing field would be leveled out for students.

“You may have learned accounting at an anonymous online university, but your CPA score gives you a way to show employers you’re a stronger applicant than someone from an Ivy League school.”

With Murray’s proposal the traditional four-year BA degree would no longer be the sole tool for measuring achievement.

“Under a certification system, four years is not required, residence is not required, expensive tuitions are not required, and a degree is not required. Equal educational opportunity means, among other things, creating a society in which it’s what you know that makes the difference. Substituting certifications for degrees would be a big step in that direction.

“Our obsession with the BA has created a two-tiered entry to adulthood, anointing some for admission to the club and labeling the rest as second-best. An educational world based on certification tests would be a better place in many ways, but the overarching benefit is that the line between college and non-college competencies would be blurred. Hardly any jobs would still have the BA as a requirement for a shot at being hired. Opportunities would be wider and fairer, and the stigma of not having a BA would diminish.”

Growing Criticism of Higher Education
Our recent review of the work of David Wiley and Michael Wesch reveals a viewpoint that colleges are part of a growing digital divide. Their work focuses more on current classroom instructional practices that fail to mirror “The World Is Flat” culture that defines the world today.

“For Most People, College Is a Waste of Time” is yet another call for higher education to take a hard look at its current structure though Murray’s focus is on the very basis that most colleges exist, the ability to award a degree. But of the three, Murray is the only one who seems to be questioning the idea that “too many people are going to college.”

At the same time as these experts call higher education, as it currently exists, into question, it is interesting to note that in their criticisms these men did not address the major concern of the general public, the exorbitant costs associated with earning a college degree. Add that public concern to the growing list of criticisms voiced by these experts and the last bastion of American education could be in for a rude awakening in the not too-distant future.

We are not suggesting that the university system as we know it would necessarily become obsolete. Certainly not with the billions of dollars in endowments currently in place and the current stratification that exists within American society.

But as criticisms mount, more and more people will no doubt begin questioning higher education as it currently exists. The debate will ultimately be a simple one:

Will there be real value in earning a college diploma or will a university degree be nothing more than a costly status symbol?


1 Writer Dad { 08.20.08 at 10:14 am }

I just wanted to say, I have really loved reading this blog over the last week. Thank you.

2 jacquy Pfeiffer { 08.21.08 at 4:41 pm }

I am Jacquy Pfeiffer , of The French Pastry school in Chicago.
I grew up in France and Mr Murray describes a system that has been running successfully for decades in Europe.
The 2 year apprenticeship, with a certificate at the end, is a system where a person is trained in the field that he or she will use for the rest of their career.
They can then move on and go for a master degree and then a master craftsmen degree while still working in their field. This makes experts in their fields and elevates the quality of the products manufactured or created by them. At our school, our 6 month hands-on program trains people to learn techniques following the European model. It will make the students become real craftsmen in their fields. There are no unnecessary classes that will inflate the tuition and slow down the student with heavy debts.

3 Dr. R.D.B. Laime { 09.21.08 at 11:59 am }

Murray and others offend the pandering politicians who without thinking things through say everyone should get a college education. While some fields would difficult to give a certification “diploma”, let’s say poety or something along those lines, ” what is needed today are job skills, some on a higher order than some(maybe), yet as Murray has pointed out we need first rate electricians and plumbers as well as folks who go through a college program like philosophy and then debate the undebatable. Progressives/liberals buy this crap, yet those who see a dismal future realize that college education maybe only an indication that the person has the ability to absorb a great deal of facts, yet does not have the ability to think(way beyond critical thinking) or resist the usual way of thinking(I’m right and you’re wrong). Folks like Edward deBono ought to be listened to more than some other “thinkers” on the left.

4 College for Every Student - A Silly, Misguided Notion - { 10.21.08 at 7:06 pm }

[…] of higher education, “Higher Education, Dangerously Close to Irrelevant,” and “Charles Murray – for Most People, College Is a Waste of Time,” were a bit less than flattering, our thoughts were positively benign when held up against those of […]

5 Allison { 03.29.10 at 12:56 am }

I have to write a 13-15 page paper on public policy reform to higher education in America, your writing and ideas have revamped my assignment, thanks.

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