Several years ago, I attended a Liberty Fund conference where one of the readings was Edward Chase Kirkland’s Dream and Thought in the Business Community. What I remember most from the book is that many of the great business leaders of the late-1800s not only regarded college education as unnecessary for anyone who was looking for a career in business, but many (like Andrew Carnegie) believed that it was positively harmful.
How times have changed. Today, most entry-level jobs in business are closed to anyone who doesn’t have a college degree in hand. The trouble is that because such huge numbers of Americans how have those credentials and many of them are perilously weak in basic skills required by even the most mundane jobs, the college diploma has become meaningless.
That is exactly the way Reid Hoffman, co-founder and executive chairman of LinkedIn puts it in his recent article in The New Republic. He points to polling that shows a majority of business executives saying that they have had difficulty finding college graduates with the qualifications to fill openings. While most of their firms have come to rely on college credentials as an initial screening mechanism, he writes, “The more employers realize that four-year degrees don’t necessarily guarantee the attributes they value most, the more likely they’ll be to demand a system that does.”
That’s right, but unfortunately Hoffman doesn’t devote any ink to explaining why that is the case. At one time, having graduated from college came pretty close to guaranteeing those desired attributes: facility with English, with at least basic math, the ability to reason logically. And degrees from some colleges and universities still do. Nobody looks at a Cal Tech degree and wonders if the student who earned it has any skills.
The reason why many college diplomas have become meaningless is that they’re now so easy to obtain. Decades ago, most college leaders decided that it was more important to bring in as many students as possible (and their money) than to keep academic standards high. Most of the students who enroll in college expect it to be undemanding academically but quite a lot of fun. As long as that remains the case, I don’t think it’s possible to “fix” the college diploma.
But just what does Hoffman envision as that fix? He suggests “an online document that’s iterative like a LinkedIn profile…but is administered by some master service that verifies the authenticity of its components.” This portfolio would contain the individual’s formal coursework plus any other badges or certifications he or she has earned, as well as any other information that helps to demonstrate his abilities and interests.
People can already create such e-portfolios. An organization devoted to helping them do so is the Association for Authentic, Experiential and Evidence-Based Learning. If Hoffman is correct that employers have a demand for accurate information about an individual’s learning, skills, and accomplishments so as to best assess his probability of success, then that is a field for entrepreneurship. Competition will find the best way or ways of satisfying the demand for accurate information about prospective employees and their accomplishments.
The question is what role the good old bachelor’s degree will play in that. My guess is that its importance will decline asymptotically. That is because so much of what goes into those degrees today – at most schools anyway – is of extremely dubious quality. Employers probably want evidence that an individual can write competently, for example, but merely having accumulated enough credits to graduate does not provide such evidence.
Colleges might start to insist that professors assign and rigorously evaluate student writing, but that change will only happen slowly. Other more direct and less costly ways for young people to demonstrate that they are decent writers will come to the fore in their e-portfolios. I would bet that the best college writing teachers will figure out how to sell their services (with independent assessment of student results) on an individual basis.
Some schools have maintained their academic integrity and their degrees command respect. They don’t need to be fixed. As for the many that have not, however, I doubt that they can be fixed before the online revolution Hoffman foresees turns them into historical curiosities, like the slide rule.