With keen university students across the nation participating in gruesome Frosh Week activities this week, I decided a thought experiment on the value of higher education might be timely. Picture a bright 18-year-old who has been accepted into a high ranking liberal arts program. Instead of attending, though, she hits the job market. In twenty years, do you think there would be a difference in her earning potential from that of the typical high school grad?
I do. Sure she doesn’t have the degree, but her acceptance letter already proved her intelligence and motivation. Perhaps, then, liberal arts university graduates earn more than high school graduates simply due to self-selection. Those who are already inclined to earn more are also the ones who continue to higher education.
Certainly most high paying jobs—and especially those that are attractive to women—do require a degree. But I don’t think it’s because the job intrinsically needs the knowledge one derives from studying “Gendered Alternatives: Science Fiction and Fantasy”, or “Intimacy, Sexuality and Deviance in Early Modern Europe” (two recent courses offered at Queen’s), but because employers require a degree as an elaborate way to uncover good employees. And they assume that university grads are smarter and more motivated than high school grads.
So let’s ask a slightly different question: assuming she is hired in a corporate setting, despite her lack of degree, could she do the job as well as a university graduate?
That’s exactly the scenario educational researcher George Leef posed to several high priced lawyers: take ten students who have been accepted to Harvard Law, but imagine instead that they immediately apprenticed at a prestigious law firm. Would there be any difference in their job performance a decade later versus those who had actually graduated?
All the lawyers said no. But they went even further than that. They said those who had worked with the firm from the start would probably make better lawyers, because they had been trained specifically for the job. It’s not the education from Harvard that makes you a good employee; it’s the fact that you were accepted by Harvard in the first place.
In the 1950s a high school education was sufficient to land most white collar jobs. As more and more people attended university, though, more and more jobs began to require one, even though the skills required by jobs have not changed substantially. We’re just using the university system to vet the best employees.
I’m not sure, however, that this is even the most efficient way to sift through job applicants. Employers need employees with communication skills, problem-solving skills, and good work habits. Do university liberal arts programs even provide these? Hopefully they teach people to write well, but there’s no guarantee that a person who took four years of “Medieval Bodies: Traversing Sex and Gender in the Middle Ages” (at the prestigious Columbia University) will graduate knowing how to write memos and analyze strategic reports.
Recently I was chatting with the affable man who was installing hardwood in our dining room. Turns out he has a university degree in computers, which left him with no job prospects and major debt. So he began to install floors. There’s no training course; you just have to be good at what you do. Now he has his own business, he’s easily supporting his young family, and he’s making far more than he would have made otherwise.
This is a route that’s easily available to men. It’s harder for women for whom the trades aren’t as attractive, and I think that’s one reason the ratio of female to male in universities is now running at around three to two.
But at some point, all of us may start to realize that university is an awfully expensive and inefficient way to identify people who think on their own, write well, and work independently. Higher education still has value for its own sake. But if students’ goals are just to land a better job, perhaps there’s a better way. If we could find another route to credential people, or even just to test those essential skills, without requiring four years of a degree which costs tens of thousands of dollars, we might make life a lot easier for everyone.
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