What does it mean to say that you have a college degree?
I found myself asking this question while watching the Olympics with my roommates and some of their friends. Subleasing in a college town post-graduation has certainly made my transition a little easier; it’s sort of like training wheels for Real Life. Anyway, one commercial came on that featured arguably the greatest athlete ever to live. After the clip concluded, one of the girls asked, “Who’s Muhammad Ali?”
I don’t mean to degrade this individual, whose company I enjoy, and, to be fair, the cultural reference is a little outdated. Further, I have always been suspicious about using the capacity to retain trivial knowledge as a litmus for intelligence. However, I think inattention to history, especially history of one’s own nation, reflects a poverty of intellectual curiosity. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some people are into academics, some people are into working out, still others are into shopping or cooking or science fiction or any number of interests that we silly humans indulge, and that’s OK. Not everyone has to be an intellectual.
So why is the current convention that everyone needs to go to college? Traditionally, a liberal arts education was intended to broaden the scope of one’s intellect. However, in recent years, the increase in accessibility of higher education alongside a similar uptick in the market’s expectations for base-level education has warped the college degree into a means to an end, necessary for obtaining a living salary and not much more. I think this phenomenon, in turn, has diluted the value of the same education the diploma is meant to represent.
Instead of treating education like a commodity similar to a vacation or a sports car–a luxury to be enjoyed during leisure time–it is now a prerequisite for employment in the corporate world and admissions into graduate schools. As such, many students, especially those only invested in their education insofar as it will provide them with a bump in the pay grade, find the most efficient, but not necessarily rewarding path of obtaining their degrees. Many credit systems allow students to shop for the easiest courses, to do the bare minimum amount of work, and to get by. One need not look for proof beyond our 43rd president to see evidence of this, and he went to Yale. Having a college degree no longer means you are an academic, or even that you are interested in academia.
Still, the market has placed a high value on a college degree because employers seem to use it as proof that the job candidate is capable of being productive. I think this perspective is flawed because the traditional liberal arts education (re: excluding engineers, architects, etc.) is incompatible with most measurements of productivity. Yes, the idea is that college teaches you “how” to think, but we just went over reasons that might not be the case. Then, in the end, very few of us graduate with practical skills. Sure, I may know a little about neuroplasticity in fetal development, or even how the Treaty of Versailles contributed to the fall of the Weimar, and I could probably even formulate a coherent argument linking the two, but I don’t see how that helps me fill in numbers on a spreadsheet or tell a company whom they should fire (as I am to understand is the duty of many “consultants,” whatever they are). A lot of college grads probably can’t even tell you those science-y things, and I know, because I took a sociology class once, and you do not want to know what goes on in there. So, not only does having a degree not translate to academic prowess, but it also translates poorly to the qualifications businesses look for.
Of course, you could argue that there is a correlation between having a college degree and having the qualifications for a corporate job, but I would submit that many third variables contribute to that correlation. For instance, children of college graduates are more likely to go to college than children of parents who did not attend school. College-educated parents do all sorts of weird things to give their offspring a leg up in the rat race. Basically what I’m getting at here is that the correlation between having a degree and having the “skills” has more to do with socioeconomic status than anything else.
In the end, the commercialization of higher education reduces a college degree to a piece of paper on the wall that confirms you are not a homicidal vagrant. And even then, if all my sociopathic friends are any indicator, it’s not a sure thing.
So, if a college degree says very little about an individual’s intelligence or productivity (though, depending on the school you attended, it might actually speak to your ability to down a fifth of whiskey), if I were an employer, I wouldn’t give a damn whether you had a degree. I would want to know that you were smart. Incidentally, they make a test for that — the SAT, which is very logic-heavy (there are reasons why this may also be a poor metric for intelligence, but just indulge me for the time being). So maybe I would want to see a high SAT score. But then I might recall that high SAT scores correlate with attendance at really good schools. So maybe I would want to see that you went to a really good school… which could render your degree from an average, but perhaps more affordable school, less valuable.
This isn’t to say that more widespread education doesn’t have benefits for society, and I am all for everybody learning as much as possible and wanting to expand their intellectual horizons. But using a degree as certificate of basic competence ensures that college is less about the pursuit of knowledge and more about checking off boxes. So, I propose a solution to this: if more people attending whatever school they can get into just to have a shiny piece of paper means that the shiny piece of paper says less about their qualifications, why not reserve education for those who are truly passionate about it?
Obviously this solution is not feasible given the current structure of higher education, and I will continue to emphasize the importance of going to college to my students so that they can have a shot at a better life. Until the perspective from which we approach higher education changes, discouraging people from going to college unless they want to do it for “funsies” will only stand to broaden the education gap and stunt socioeconomic mobility in America further, if that’s even possible, as the permeability of class divisions is similar to that of the Berlin Wall, c. 1980. Still, changing the way we consider higher education might be inevitable as the education bubble burst looms.