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Is College a Waste of Time?

Updated: Apr 15

Charlie Frago’s Saturday article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about the recently released report of the state’s task force on college remediation, retention and graduation (link opens PDF file) really ought to be read in tandem with Charles Murray’s fascinating piece in last week’s Wall Street Journal, titled “For Most People, College Is A Waste of Time.”

Murray and the Arkansas task force share a few assumptions about what colleges are supposed to do. As far as I can tell, they both think the main job—perhaps the only job—of higher education is to mold students into more productive and knowledgeable workers who are trained in economically valuable disciplines. Advocacy of what used to be called a “liberal education” that teaches us about our history, civilization and culture is essentially absent from both their approaches.

Perhaps more interesting is the nature of the disagreement between the task force and Murray. The task force thinks that the most important educational goal in Arkansas is to increase the number (or, more precisely, the percentage) of Arkansans with college degrees. Murray thinks that goal, as such, is largely a waste of time.

Why? Murray says that a college degree means little or nothing, except that its recipient has enough intellectual ability to pass some classes and enough perseverance to stay in college for four years. A diploma “can mean anything from a solid base of knowledge to four years of barely remembered gut courses.”

Murray says that what a 21st century workforce needs is not sheepskins, but skills. Both employers and applicants, he says, need a known and trusted measure of qualifications that can serve as a basis of hiring decisions—a measure that demonstrates knowledge and skills.

Murray argues that we already have a model for this: the CPA exam, a nationwide test that comprehensively measures competence in the accounting field. Murray wants to know why we don’t adopt this model for all sorts of career fields, which would allow career training and advancement for a lot less money and a lot less time. His article is worth reading.

Later this week: a discussion of the task force’s report.

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