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Sunday, May 25, 2014

When it comes to college, why don’t we separate granting credentials from learning?

Today college serves at least four different purposes:

      Purpose #1) It provides some information to a prospective employer about the minimum IQ of a possible hire (it tells you little about their actual IQ);  
      #2) General learning and experience;
d    #3) Preparation for the job market; 
      #4) Demonstrate credentials to the job market that allows a potential employer to determine if the graduate has learned certain material. 


Demonstrating Your Smarts

One does not get accepted into Harvard with an IQ of 90. Therefore if I hire a Harvard grad, I have some information about the IQ of the candidate. But some graduates from Florida State have higher IQs than some Stanford grads. This function (demonstrating smarts) could be met more simply and accurately by allowing and encouraging prospects to include their test scores (SAT, ACT or GMAT) on their resumes and job applications. This is not done today because: 1) it is considered bad form and 2) it might be viewed as discriminatory because the employer cannot demonstrate that this measure is required to meet the minimal requirements of the job (in the crazy world of Equal Opportunity Law).  Seems nuts to me, but if a large corporation started asking for SAT scores they would quickly have the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission breathing down their necks and threatening major fines.

Here is an alternative (although limited) method to demonstrate your smarts. We could allow and encourage job applicants to list the colleges to which they were accepted but chose not to attend. Unfortunately with today’s norms this would be viewed as egotistical as the bumper sticker that brags: “My other car is a Porsche”. There is a time and a method where the student sells herself in a time-honored fashion (trying to get into a college and trying to get a job or into graduate school upon graduation) but this is currently not one of them. One could establish that she was accepted at Harvard but chose San Jose State instead (perhaps with a bumper sticker). The hardest part about graduating from Harvard is getting accepted in the first place. Very few students that start at Harvard (provided they show up, do not drop out like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg did, and do not get hooked on drugs) end up not graduating. 

Learning and Experience

The learning is what you should be paying for (time, money and effort) - learning how to learn, how to think, how to persuade, how to question, how to analyze as well as mastering a few basics like logic, statistics, writing, and the discipline to meet deadlines and complete projects.  And of course it might also help one determine what the individual might be interested in pursuing as a career starter.
But today there are plenty of alternatives to achieve the learning without the traditional college experience. The Khan Academy, free online MBA classes from Wharton,  and TED conferences are just a few of the wonderful free online resources available.  There are also a growing number of for-pay sites that provide education at a reasonable price like ($25/month), ($9.95/month) and ($15.95/month).  On this dimension, shouldn't we care about the education achieved for the dollar spent? 

Two potential college experiences are living away from home for the first time and sharing a dorm room with someone from a different background. And of course there is the chance to participate in campus clubs, games, debates, and politics. My favorite of course is getting a job or internship while in college.

There is plenty of discussion of life-long friendships that are made and the experience of attending the Saturday morning football games. But much of this is possible without spending an additional $200,000. For example, if one chose not to attend college, you could join a local entrepreneurs group, attend local seminars, watch online pitches, volunteer at a non-profit or an angel investing group, or volunteer to assist a college professor on her research.  Please consider that smart volunteers are almost always in demand.  College is not the only way to gain non-paid experience.

Preparation for the Job Market

If you hope to be accepted to Medical or Veterinarian school you probably have to find a way to get through Organic Chemistry. If you want to work for a consulting engineering company then you better take a broad range of math, science and engineering classes. If you intend to get a finance job then college is the chance to learn the basics of accounting, finance and project finance.

If all your classes in the general curriculum make you a better critical thinker (a stated goal of virtually every university) and more knowledgeable about world history these are interesting but generally do less in increasing your odds of getting several great job offers upon graduation.


There are different types of credentials that one can earn via college.  The typical one is a "degree."  But in the IT field, the myriad of certifications (from Microsoft, Oracle and Cisco) frequently count for more than a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science.

The degree from an Ivy League college frequently just signals that you were smart enough to get accepted in the first place (OK, I have covered this but it is important ). If you get accepted to Harvard and stick it out, you will earn a degree. The hard part is being smart enough to get accepted and sometimes brash enough to borrow boatloads of money to finance the gig.

The second element of the degree that matters is the major in which you graduated. Did you graduate in a discipline that is perceived as difficult and in demand (electrical engineering or chemical engineering) or did you take a course load that is perceived as easier (Gender Studies, Sociology, Physical Education). Many more students can get accepted to San Jose State or Stanford than can complete the Electrical Engineering programs at these schools. Being smart enough and disciplined enough to complete one of these degrees provides more bragging rights (and probably more job offers) than an easier program at the same school. The general media hypes the value of a generic college education far more frequently that the value of a degree in Electrical Engineering compared to Sociology.  

The credential process has some value. Do you want a brain surgeon operating on you for his first ever surgery? When you are on trial for murder do you want an attorney that has not graduated from law school, or never tried a capital case?  Back as to demonstrating your smarts, in these latter two cases wouldn't you want someone you knew is very smart as well? Although a college degree can demonstrate smarts, shouldn't there be a more direct and cheaper vehicle for determining this?  

The Challenge

Here is my thesis: when we combine these four distinct functions, we muddle the objectives of each of them and waste a lot of time and money trying to achieve some nebulous combination. When a college is failing in one dimension they say: “but we are doing so well on this other one.”  On the learning element, shouldn't we track the amount of learning achieved in some quantifiable way? For example, a simple measure would be to require GMAT scores for every college graduate. Then compare the SAT scores of the entering classes with the ranking of the graduating classes (on a percentile basis).  My guess is that we might not see much difference. 

When we combine the credential process with the learning process, there is a clear conflict of interest.  Should it matter which professor is the most demanding and generates the most learning or one that is the kindest, gentlest and easiest grader?  Professors and colleges frequently get evaluated based on how many pass the class or graduate from the college – a sure conflict of interest. Rarely does the instructor or college get greater kudos for being extremely demanding. If one institution delivers the education and another does the testing and grading, the conflict of interest is removed. The current system has resulted in such grade inflation that today about 42% of all college grades are A’s. 

I doubt if many colleges will be inclined to set goals and measure results based on my four purposes – this might actually force them to reevaluate how they are organized and how they compete. I also doubt that they will remove themselves from the credentialing process (Purpose #4). Once these institutions lose their ability to grade themselves (by grading and graduating their own students), we might see radical change (and improvement).

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