NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


August 14, 2008

Imagine if America had no system of post-secondary education.  Imagine if a bachelor's degree (BA) equaled nothing.  What would we do?  According to author Charles Murray, the solution is not to create better degrees, but to have no degrees at all.  Instead, people should get certifications.

The merits of certifications -- like those earned by accountants that pass the CPA exam - apply to any college major for which the BA is now used as a job qualification, such as criminal justice, social work and public administration, says Murray.  Moreover, they create equal opportunity, which 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, he adds.

In fact:

  • Certification tests would provide all employers with valuable, trustworthy information about job applicants.
  • They would benefit young people who cannot or do not want to attend a traditional four-year college.
  • They would be welcomed by the growing post-secondary online educational industry, which cannot offer the halo effect of a BA from a traditional college, but can realistically promise their students good training for a certification test.

However, certification tests need not undermine the incentives to get a traditional liberal-arts education, says Murray, and they will not get rid of the problems associated with differences in intellectual ability.  Additionally, they would disadvantage one set of people: Students who have gotten into well-known traditional schools, but who are coasting through their years in college and would score poorly on a certification test. 

But the reality is that everyone starts as an apprentice.  Getting rid of the BA and replacing it with evidence of competence -- treating post-secondary education as apprenticeships for everyone -- is one way to help us to recognize that common bond, he concludes.

Source: Charles Murray, "For Most People, College Is a Waster of Time," Wall Street Journal, August 13, 2008; based upon: Charles Murray, "Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality," Crown Forum, forthcoming.

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