Time to Boycott College?

Steve Phillips
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Posted: Oct 16, 2014 5:06 PM
Time to Boycott College?

“My fellow Americans, it’s time to boycott college,” says Blaze blogger Matt Walsh. Pulling from the well of collective despair that is the current US job market, Walsh begins by telling us about one of his friends, who just couldn’t find a job because he didn’t have a degree. He says, now if my friend just had one of these magical pieces of paper, he could no doubt find a job, and rejoin the workforce. The problem, my fellow Americans, is college. It forces us to bankrupt ourselves to learn skills we don’t need for jobs we don’t want. And according to Matt Walsh, in an era where you can learn anything online, it is increasingly irrelevant. He claims that college is a scam, or a societal construct; a big game we are all playing and no one knows why.

Well that’s not exactly true. It’s actually pretty clear how we got here, and why we play this game. It’s a mismatch of expectations. College degrees were not designed to be job training. College degrees, in many cases, are still not designed to be job training. They are designed first and foremost to teach meaningful skills like critical thinking, math, research that allow students to effectively interact with the world. However, increasing, students, parents, and employers all look at college degrees as job training. In fact, studies show that more than 85% of students say they are going to college to get a job, or to get a better job. Because of this misalignment of purposes, students are coming out of college with skills that don’t translate exactly into jobs, with unimaginable debt, and with no clear path towards a stable future. It’s this simple confusion that has given rise to the situation we have today.

So how do we resolve this? Students want jobs. Employers want qualified applicants with the specific skills needed to succeed at a particular job, with the least amount of expensive on-the-job training necessary. Educators want to teach students skills that are transferable across specific jobs, and prepare them for civic engagement, and lifelong learning.

One answer, Walsh’s answer, is to just abandon colleges. Let professors shuffle around in their crumbling ivory towers as the world passes them by. And to a certain extent that is happening in some industries. Computer programming for instance, is one industry that has embraced alternative credentials wholeheartedly. Dev Bootcamp for instance will teach you how to code in as little as 19 weeks, and then set you up with an employer who is anxious to hire you. The problem with his method is that you run the risk of becoming another cog in the wheel of industry. You have been trained how to do one thing. What happens if your job changes? Or what if you decide you don’t like coding anymore? Do you have the information literacy skills to train yourself to do something else? Do you need to pay to go back for more boot camp? Will employers in another industry care that you attended a Dev Bootcamp and learned Ruby on Rails?

What if instead of dismissing college as irrelevant, we looked at what college is actually good at? The greatest strength of colleges, and the faculty that make them up, is that they recognize and credential knowledge and skills. That’s the majority of their current function anyway.

Do you know something? Take this test, prove it to me. Can you put together a marketing strategy for a company? Okay, do it, create that strategy, and present it to me.

This is the element that cannot be replaced by information out on the internet. And this validation is what lets employers know “here are all the things that I bring to the table as an applicant, and they’ve been verified by an expert.” While this may sound like a radical transformation from the sleepy lectures that you sat through in college, this focus on assessment is being implemented right now across the nation. It’s called competency-based education.

Competency-based education is an idea centered on the direct assessment of a student’s knowledge and skills. It starts by breaking down a degree into a list of all the things that a student should be able to do by the end of the program. This includes not only skills that are necessary for employment in a particular industry, but also kinds of skills we mentioned earlier: critical thinking, research, quantitative literacy. Each of those skills, these “can do” statements is paired up with an assessment of some kind (test, written paper, presentation, etc.). If a student can pass the assessment, they get credit for that skill, and they move on. So if you have some work experience that matches up with the degree you’re seeking, chances are you can pass some of these assessments without even opening a book. This also gives students a tangible idea of what they do know, so they can express that to employers. Instead of, “Oh I got a B+ in Roman History,” which is effectively meaningless in the job market, they understand, “I learned how to relate modern economic theory to pre-industrial societies.”

Going back to Matt Walsh’s article, he states, “Most tasks in life only require someone with the skill, competency, and desire to complete them, not the academic credentials to write papers about them… most talents are honed through action.” Well, there are people in higher education who agree with this statement. But, the solution isn’t to tell everyone to abandon college. The solution is to look at what college does best, and build a new system around that; one that makes sense for everyone.

Steve Phillips is the Assessment Strategist at Thomas Edison State College's Center for the Assesment of Learning and you can follow him on twitter at @stevecontip