Rethinking Credentialization

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton want to make college “free” (i.e., paid-for by taxpayers) for many, or even all, Americans. In other words, they want a college education to become an entitlement – along with medical care, food and, soon enough, housing; these people really like giving away other people’s money.

I have a different idea: for most people, we ought to make college (as we now know it, anyway: hugely expensive, four-year residential programs where many if not most students take courses that teach them few, if any, usable skills) obsolete. Before we get to my idea, though, I would like to (again – the first time was here, in 2013) quote Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit on the topic of government subsidies of higher education:

“The government decides to try to increase the middle class by subsidizing things that middle class people have: If middle-class people go to college and own homes, then surely if more people go to college and own homes, we’ll have more middle-class people. But homeownership and college aren’t causes of middle-class status, they’re markers for possessing the kinds of traits — self-discipline, the ability to defer gratification, etc. — that let you enter, and stay, in the middle class. Subsidizing the markers of status doesn’t produce the character traits that result in that status; it undermines them.”


Over the last forty or fifty years, college has become horrifically, indeed absurdly, expensive. At this point, for a middle class, or even upper middle-class, couple with two or three children, the costs of sending their children to college means draining their bank accounts of well, everything, and probably co-signing on loans that they and their children will be paying off for a decade or more. The schools’ attitudes seem to be: whatever you’ve got, we’ll take it.

I know, I know: it’s expensive for an institution – public or private – to house, feed and occasionally teach a horde of young people. You have to employ all sorts of people  – deans to oversee other deans, Title IX coordinators, lawyers, fundraisers, marketing people, human resources people, athletic departments, even some professors. Somebody has to teach the children all the awful things that Christianity, capitalism and Western Civilization hath wrought, after all.

Just kidding: in some fields the teaching is still perfectly serious, if ancillary to other campus activities.


So here’s my idea: if what’s important about education is what people come to know – what they learn – can’t we test for that without relying on the college system to credentialize young people?

Why do young people have to spend four years at a residential college to learn, say, engineering skills, if they can teach themselves the same skills and be tested for them just as rigorously as if they went to Harvard? (Indeed, maybe more so: I have read that the average in-major grade at Harvard is an A-; I’m pretty sure that an objective testing system would show, ah, a wider range of outcomes).

I majored in English Literature. I could’ve read all the same great works – perhaps following a recognized syllabus and watching lectures online, maybe even having my essays (book reports!) analyzed and corrected by an algorithm more rigorous than some tired teaching assistant. And think of how much initiative I would have shown if I had done all of that on my own instead of just taking prescribed courses.

Don’t get me wrong: I got real value from the teaching and personalized feedback I received from a handful of wonderful professors – but was getting that teaching/feedback in person (as compared with, say, online) worth the roughly $400,000 that it would now cost to purchase the same four-year degree?

Nothing I learned as an undergraduate at Princeton had much of a bearing on my subsequent careers as a banker, then entrepreneur. I’m sure that it helped me to have gone to Princeton – the prestige of the degree undoubtedly opened doors. And a few contacts and friendships I made helped, too. But the specific skills I learned there? Nope.

Think of our prestigious colleges as being akin to elite clubs. It’s hard to get in; people have a lot of fun there and at the end they receive solid gold credentials, whether or not they learned anything useful.

In my experiences as an employer, I was astonished that many of the liberal arts majors from prestigious schools couldn’t write coherently. Whatever they’re teaching these kids isn’t writing skills. Or good work habits. I could go on…


Why do employers favor – often exclusively – recent college graduates for their entry-level positions?

In most jobs, entry-level positions are, effectively, apprenticeships. The employer has a responsibility to make sure that each new employee actually has the skills – and the character traits – needed to fulfill his or her responsibilities – and often ends up teaching them those skills/traits. The college system is supposed to separate the wheat from the chaff, delivering a “product” – capable young apprentices – that have the character traits, the skills and, perhaps, the manners (or at least cultural frames of reference) required to thrive in their new positions.

But do young people really need to spend $400,000 (or somewhat less, if they get scholarships) and four years of their lives acquiring those skills and traits? Probably not. I’m pretty sure that the kids who get into Harvard, for example, already have the raw ability and the character traits; with a bit of help, if they have any initiative at all they could teach themselves the skills. And if they don’t have that initiative, would you really want to employ them?

My guess is that if a young person spent the same years actually working, while taking online courses and acing his or her exams, he or she would enter his or her early-to-mid twenties with much greater maturity and worldly wisdom than do the kids who spend four years living on mom and dad’s nickel (and borrowed money), studying things that may not prove relevant to their lives and partying.

If there were a recognized testing system whereby young people could bypass the horrifically expensive and inefficient college system and still demonstrate their skill levels, wouldn’t everybody benefit? Well, everybody except those who are employed by the second and third rate colleges that are charging a fortune for imparting few skills and dubious wisdom.

All that remains is to design and build a testing system that employers would accept as readily as a newly printed sheepskin. Given the often dubious value of degrees today, and the ready availability of testing (to say nothing of teaching) software, I should think such a development is inevitable.


There will always be a place for great colleges and universities, but the idea that everybody should spend four years studying  – whatever – for the credentialization conferred by a college degree that could be more credibly provided through testing, is a colossal waste of resources.


M.H. Johnston

Leave a reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>