Wednesday, October 20, 2010

 

Ask the Administrator: The Generic Degree

An occasional correspondent writes:

Some jobs out there are advertised as requiring a college degree, but
the employers don't care what was actually studied. So these employers
are in effect using college as a four-year hundred-thousand-dollar
screening test, with perhaps a bit of intellectual calisthenics for
good measure.

I had a chance to discuss this with a supervisor at one of the
management consulting companies, and he confirmed this is in fact
their policy. I suggested that since they don't care about any
specific knowledge -- only smarts and the willingness to work hard --
they should be open to hiring people right out of high school. Some
high-school students can point to significant intellectual
accomplishments, after all. But no, this is Just Not Done.

A four-year degree seems like a very expensive way of doing
intellectual quality control. Could we do better?


I hate to admit it, but there’s some truth to this.

I saw this quite a bit at PU, where some older students were already well into their careers and doing well there, but they needed their hands stamped in order to move up to the next level. They didn’t care much about the actual content of it; the point was to become eligible for management ranks. I took it as a personal victory when one of those students actually found value in a class I taught.

At an individual level, this can be kind of silly. Certainly it’s possible to be brilliant (or better, wise) without a degree, and to be bovine with one. And it’s also true that some jobs that stipulate college degrees don’t really draw on the skills that a degree is supposed to confer, whatever the major. Degree factories exist for that very reason.

That said, though, I like to think that a bachelor’s degree from a real college -- as opposed to a degree factory -- carries some meaning.

At one level, it shows the ability and willingness to stick to a program. Given the prevalence of college dropouts, those who actually finish have at least shown the ability to get their stuff together sufficiently to fulfill a multiyear commitment. (Along similar lines, students who transfer from cc’s with associate’s degrees tend to finish bachelor’s degrees at far higher rates than those who transfer with scattered credits. The graduates are those who finish what they start.) It shows the ability to navigate a bureaucracy, which is an essential workplace skill for most of the higher-paying jobs.

If the college is at least halfway serious, a degree should indicate some ability to handle complexity, to communicate at least functionally, and keep one’s balance when dealing with numbers. One of my personal indices for wisdom is the ability to handle ambiguity. Clueless people can be trained to do almost anything routine; the real test comes when the routine has to change. Some of that is temperamental, but some has to do with the ability to discern the bigger picture.

The actual content of the degree is another issue. I don’t often draw on my study of Restoration England, but I do draw on some of the skills developed through it. My social science training enabled me to stay awake and attempt to wring meaning out of long, boring, poorly-written texts; on the job, I use that skill every single day.

There’s certainly a case to be made that if you just need a generic degree, you should go to public institutions. Two years at a cc, followed by two years at a state college, will give you a far lower student loan burden than four years at someplace private. (Financial aid discrepancies may muddy that picture, admittedly.) If it’s just a matter of getting your hand stamped, why pay more?

Does it make sense for employers to use college degrees as hand stamps? In any individual case, probably not, but in the aggregate, probably. (For purposes of discussion, I’m not looking at fields like engineering, where the actual content is obviously relevant.) Given dozens or hundreds of applicants, a degree requirement makes a reasonable, legally-defensible first-level screen. It’s not perfect, but it’s clean, and it’s within reason.

The U.S. actually has a history of using college for purposes other than education. In the 1960’s, it was a source of draft deferments. In the nineties and oughts, it was a way to get health insurance. If the DREAM act passes, it will be a path to citizenship. Degrees as proxies aren’t new, and aren’t unique to the job market.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think? Do generic degrees make sense as employment screens, or is higher ed on borrowed time economically?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Comments:
Based on my grad and undergrad at elite schools (and classes taken at an excellent community college and excellent regional university while I was in high school), my belief was that college taught you how to think instead of just how to memorize. You would think like a mathematician or an economist or an english major or an artist etc. You would approach problems differently, but systematically and in a similar way to other folks in your major.

Now that I teach graduate students at a solid but not elite school, I understand degree creep and why so many employers favor the masters degree over the BA these days. A lot of what I do is teaching students to think rather than to just memorize facts. The first semester is major cognitive dissonance for most (but not all) of them, but they come out critical thinkers.

So prior to teaching I would have said a college degree teaches and demonstrates thinking skills, but as a teacher I realize that many 4 year schools are just 4 more years of high school.
 
This is absolute nonsense. When I am looking at prospective employees, having a degree absolutely matters and for good reason. It means someone, somewhere, sat you down and taught you how to think. And that is why it doesn't matter what the topic is. Engineering graduates known how to think. Philosophy graduates known how to think. Humanities and social science graduates known how to think. Even the arts graduates know how to think.

Each field teaches one to look at the world and thinks about it in a different way. But each one teaches you how to think. And if you can think, there's no job you can't do.
 
The unfortunate part about the hand-stamping approach is that it leads to a kind of credential inflation, because once you require college degrees even for jobs that could be done without college degrees, you end up forcing everyone to get a degree. Then, once everyone has a degree, its value as a discriminator is eliminated, and you find yourself requiring graduate degrees...

Plus, as much as the generic degree is a test of follow-through and organizational ability, it's also a kind of conspicuous consumption, like driving a sports car. If you can afford to give up four productive years of young adulthood to go to college instead of getting a job, you must be doing pretty well for yourself. It's a class marker. Even if college were free, which is not at all the case, people from poorer families wouldn't be able to go, because they would need to be earning a living during that time. So I do think the hand-stamp approach is a kind of legalized class discrimination.

Since I do believe education has value for its own sake and not just for job training, though, I don't think the trend toward credential inflation is an entirely bad thing. It results in more people being more educated, in the end, after all. I do think that the classism is a bad thing, but there's nothing you can really do about that. People would just find other proxies for social class if they didn't use college as one.

Also, I kind of think that it's one way we as a society are dealing with the fact that we have this "labor and reward" structure whereby you have do work in order to earn food and lodging and etc... But since the industrial revolution, less and less labor is actually required to produce more and more goods. What will we do when robots and computers can do all of the jobs people used to do in, say 1890? We're almost there already. We'll have 5-day work weeks, a huge service and entertainment sector, a ~65 year retirement age, and keep young people out of the workforce until their mid-twenties to early thirties by requiring ever more training for even the simplest jobs... I expect those trends to continue until we're all starting work at 35 and retiring and 55 and working 3-days a week, assuming we don't run out of cheap fossil fuels and find ourselves back in the middle ages first...
 
There are two situations covered by your observations:

1) The HR managers are incompetent and should be fired if they are responsible for an organization that insists on a generic degree from "anywhere" to promote someone who has a decade of outstanding performance at that company. Ditto for firing the managers who evaluated that employee. If you don't trust their judgment, get rid of them. I am not, of, course, talking about a generic MBA for promotion of a person with BA in philosophy, although even there a case could be made for specific courses rather than a degree.

2) The reason for a generic degree for new hires is quite simple: Companies have effectively fired the K-12 schools (private as well as public) because they have found that their judgment cannot be trusted.
 
Re: Anonymous 4:55 - I've seen plenty of graduates who do not have not demonstrated the ability to think. I suspect every single college out there has a handful of majors (at my last college they were management and sports management) where little critical thinking is ever asked of the students. And if they are smart about picking their gen eds, they can avoid critical thinking for essentially all of their college career.
 
"Do generic degrees make sense as employment screens, or is higher ed on borrowed time economically?"

Higher Ed is definitely in serious trouble on this front. The number of successful entrepreneurs that only have a high school diploma is ever expanding. In some high tech fields the need for an advanced degree has all but disappeared in favor of demonstration of skills and expertise during the interview process.

But more importantly, the younger kids are seeing the failure of the promise that a degree equals a job. They see mommy or daddy with their master's degree either unemployed or underemployed and they ask why they should waste six years of their life like their parents did.

There will always be a place for good quality higher education. Institutions that actually deliver a valuable experience for the dollars will still be in demand for the foreseeable future. But the rank-and-file college that exists merely to rubber-stamp the rank-and-file students without actually providing any real value, those are going to be in serious trouble by the end of the coming decade.
 
I think you did a good job of characterizing the pragmatic reason why so many employers require a "generic" bachelor's degree for employment. As is always the case, the pragmatic solutions that work for the large employer who is screening many candidates will, at times, disadvantage certain individuals who don't fit the standard profile.

I encountered a similar issue personally when I entered higher education. For me it was a second career, and when I tried to enter higher education as an Academic Advisor, many institutions didn't want to talk to me due to my only having a bachelor's degree and it not being in a perceived appropriate discipline. I finally got my break at a community college who, due to need or what I hope was a broader understanding of what made for a good advisor, gave me a shot. When I attempted to move on from there four years later, I again encountered much of the same obstacle, as I still didn't have my master's degree. Not to toot my own horn, but I'm a darn good Academic Advisor - better than many master's-degree-holding candidates I screened myself while on interview committees at the community college. But, as frustrating as it was to feel limited in my career pursuits, I still understood the reasoning behind the degree requirement.

As an Academic Advisor, when working with my undergraduate students, I am able to empathize with those who are "stuck" with lots of professional experience but insufficient academic credentials for the professional positions they aspire to. Though many enter college viewing the degree they are pursuing as a "necessary evil", I try to work hard to help them see the real personal benefit they can derive from their continued formal education. The way I see if, if you have to earn the degree, you might as well get the most out of the experience.
 
The problem with all of this is that class signals get mixed up with personal signals.

The act of measuring something is the act of prizing it. The moment you tell everyone that a degree gets you hired is the moment you change the meaning of a degree.

To folks with enough family money to wander successfully through the system, this is irrelevant; you really are selecting for the people who didn't completely screw up. But you're also selecting against the folks who are just as talented but who don't know the system well enough. Seems like there would be some good money in hiring those folks for a discount...
 
That said, now that the purpose of our educational system is to warehouse our kids and enforce class distinctions, it's hardly surprising that a high school diploma doesn't mean much.
 
There are fools who believe that a four year degree is valuable in and of itself as ‘signal theory.’ But, having attended classes with students from the broad spectrum of undergraduate education while in graduate school, and having taught students from a variety of majors at multiple institutions, I can safely assert that mathematics majors at the most obscure of state schools have more in common with mathematics majors at the most (in)famous of Ivy league institutions than students at either institution have in common with the business majors.
 
I'm mostly in the camp that agrees that a degree can be a "useful screen" for employers. Not only does it suggest (I can't use a stronger word than that) an individual has particular hard knowledge and thinking skills, it also shows an individual is capable of finishing what they start despite major obstacles. A degree shows an individual has some financial and economic discipline of some sort; paying for tuition, books, and rent with enough left over to actually enjoy yourself for four years when you're young and on your own is nothing to sneeze at. It also shows experience with following the rules, even fuzzy or strange rules ("What do you mean I have to take intro Business Math? Even though I'm a math/business major?", "My dept chair said the courses would count, so why don't they?", etc).

Although, while I also mostly agree with the "undergrad is the new high school" philosophy, I have noticed a trend here in Toronto looking for software jobs: employers who request university transcripts. This actually makes some sense if you disregard the lack of specific knowledge. Employers can then see what exactly you've taken, and have an approximate idea of how well you understand these ideas. It isn't perfect ("How did you learn programming if you didn't take many programming courses?") but it might keep the degree inflation from reaching graduate school. If your grades/courses from uni will follow you around during your career, even for a little while, it may make things a little more competitive, and hence rigourous, for the undergrad degree after all.
 
I wanted to point out a grammatical error made in a previous comment. In doing so, I suggest that perhaps this is the reason why a degree is preferred. At the same time, I have know way of knowing if in fact a degree is held by the individual who wrote the comment. Perhaps they do, perhaps they missed this class, perhaps this individual attended a degree mill? Who knows....

Quote: I've seen plenty of graduates who do not have not demonstrated the ability to think. Unquote.

As a double masters degree holder M.Ed and MBA, I can tell you this much; I have been educated on both sides of the border from the Great White North to the Deepest South. I have seen degree holders from elite institutions, and those of less than elite status perform equally well many a case. Just as I have seen the opposite ring true...one need only look at G.W. Bush as an example of how an elite degree can run you to trouble.

My bitch with employers at large, who rely on the Pedigree of the Degree" to make their decision sell themselves, and their organization short. - If in fact the degree comes from a state level institution, publicly, or not for profit source. Then it should not matter. Credentialing matters in medicine, and it matters in education.

If a school will take my money and educate me, using my tuition to pay for faculty and foundations for new educational centers then I am all for it.

However if my money is used to line the pockets of executives and shareholders on wall street, then I start to question the ethics that lie behind the process of education, and the "handing of a degree". We have as a nation entered into the bounds of "Idiocracy" when we allow education to be used to profit individuals and not society.

Moreover, we have set our sights on aiming/striving for mediocrity because it's easier, and in general, many people seem to not know the difference - rewarding many for just doing their jobs....not well, from others vantage points.

Education, and the degree therein, is a right and a privilege - which are earned through hard work, attention to detail and an ability to critically think about the world and various processes, and cultures.

In my opinion, the pressure being put on the education system by the current administration is well-timed, such that here, and now, we must fix what is broken and get back in tune with how the best nations educate, and treat the educated.

Nicole, you make a great deal of sense when you state " A lot of what I do is teaching students to think....

Mary, I like your comment too! The idea that hand stamping and handing out arbitrarily a degree that years ago showed others that you had the patience, the drive and the smarts so to speak to obtain that much sought after piece of sheep skin was a badge, of your ability to exceed and succeed.

Nowadays? Not so much....I even had an Chief Human Resources Officer tell me that they, as an organization did not care about my education, that only experience counted.....I think he was jealous, I obtained my degrees through hard work, from legitimate, accredited and well reputed schools. His came from some flunky assed place...because he paid for it - without the mental sweat, and tears that are requisite in a research institution.
 
Anon 4:55 is basically correct. You can make certain reasonable assumptions about a college graduate, including that they have a certain amount of discipline, a certain amount of critical thinking, an ability to read documents and synthesize information, and - also important - the ability to relate to and communicate with other smart people.

And while anon 6:51 is correct that not every grad will have critical thinking skills, no one is suggesting that jobs be handed to anyone with a degree: the idea is that the degree is the floor, and then the interviews, resumes, etc. are used to select from this group the best applicants.

I'm not sure what the "growing number" of entrepreneurs with HS diplomas mean (or even if it really exists), but I don't think it's particularly relevant for the discussion: the hs grad who sets up his own lawn care business would not have necessarily made the best new loan officer at a bank, simply based on interest, if nothing else.

Nor does the fact that people can get tech jobs without a college degree have much bearing on whether people hiring for other jobs should look consider the college degree. Obviously, if you need an employee with concrete skills, you will hire that employee: if you need someone who speaks German, you will hire the German speaker and not the person with a college degree in sociology but no knowledge of German.
 
This is one of those topics where there is so much to say I lack the ability to fully articulate it all. I'll throw out some fragments.

Screening for a generic degree is screening for class. Screening for GPA is screening for the ability to think. An A student will always be smarter than the average bear, even if they come from a crummy school.

Elite college degrees are a class signal. They may or may not indicate anything about what people actually know.

Degrees that are associated with skills and labs, those that teach you to do something, will yield more students with the ability to think and bring a job to completion than those which have little practical application. This is due to the fact that labs and projects with tangible products require you to practice meeting a set of requirements within certain time constraints. This is not to say that students without those degrees can't learn to produce. Rather, they've had less practice so it takes them longer to figure things out.

If you are connected well enough and have great people skills your degree and other skills may not be as important. The greek system teaches us this - and folks lucky enough to go to a school with a good alumni services program know this. Connections made during school can make all the difference in getting jobs in your first decade. These set the tone for the rest of your career. We don't teach students how to take advantage of these resources well enough.
 
I don't think there really is a better way, though as your correspondent suggests, this is an awfully expensive way to screen people. And as another commenter notes, the classist implications are fairly terrifying.

I've been in a position to hire entry-level employees before; in some of those cases, I've actually found that non-degreed candidates are better because they are not merely using this receptionist job as a springboard to something better. I'd much rather have a career admin than someone who will do the job strikingly well for a year, but just move on when something more lucrative comes along.

But in this current job market, you can get someone with a degree to do just about anything. So why wouldn't you? I can see that logic, too - usually to get a degree, you need to be able to string together coherent sentences and use MS Word. By using the bachelor's degree as a de facto screening, you've generally got that covered.

Where I work, we get hundreds of applications for even very poorly paid, entry-level jobs. The degree requirement sure is convenient for us - we've got to whittle down that pile somehow. But as someone who only has her job due to experience she gained BEFORE she got her (entirely generic) degree, I can see the flimsiness of it, too. It's a hard question.
 
We forget how much we changed as a person between the ages of 18 and 22. Most of the students I had as freshmen mature and grow a lot as thinkers by the time they graduate as seniors. It makes sense for employers to prefer college graduates, even if they don't really meet all of the employer's expectations in terms of skills. They are just four years further along than a high school graduate.

Are there some talented and competent high school student who could jump right into the business world? Sure, they could start out as the copier clerk or answering the phone. But lets be honest, most of them are not really ready to do that. College is where America sends its teenagers to grow up.
 
Generic degrees are probably unsustainable as employment screens. Here's Steven Landburg in The Armchair Economist at p. 27.

"[L]et us make the pessimistic hypothesis that students learn nothing of value in college. Nevertheless, employers prefer to hire college graduates, because grads are smarter, on average, than nongrads. Going to college did not make them smart; rather, being smart enabled them to survive college. Still, if employers have no other way to distinguish between the smart and the not-so-smart, then they will be willing to pay higher salaries to those with more education."

That's a jaded version of the signalling model, in which the difficulty of acquiring the signal serves as a (sometimes accurate) proxy of real ability. Some of the commenters, such as the individual who noted that math majors, no matter the institution, were pretty much of a piece. That's the human capital model, and the commenters who noted that the university is developing the ability to think, irrespective of field, are working from a human capital model of education.

The problem in actually existing education is that the signalling model seems to be more accurate. Back to Landsburg.

"In this example, students are like male birds of paradise, employers are like female birds, and getting an education is like growing a long tail: It is an expensive way to acquire something useless that nonetheless signals your inner qualities."

The evolution of elaborate tails on male birds of paradise illustrates a positional arms race. The acquisition of a prestige degree, and the value of the U. S. News rankings, is in acquiring position relative to others.

There is accumulating evidence, however, that the prestige degrees don't add much value (although they validate the work people did in high school to obtain admission).

The generic degrees, being less costly to obtain, appear to be less valuable as a signal.
 
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