Four Years As a Screening Device

By May 1, 2007General

Excellent catch by George Leef of the Pope Center on Higher Education Policy of a column in The Nation by left-wing polemicist Barbara Ehrenreich, who wonders whether a four-year degree actually serves an educational purpose. A good question. Ehrenreich:

The pundits keep chanting that we need a more highly skilled workforce, by which they mean more college graduates, although the connection between college and skills is not always crystal clear.

The pundits are saying that? The pundits are demanding more college graduates? Not if you’re talking about the pundits who recognize the “skills gap” that’s afflicting U.S. manufacturers.

At any rate, Leef’s critique of higher education is a provocative one, worth critical discussion.

Barbara Ehrenreich is a socialist whose writings are usually as dense as mud. She has, however, stumbled upon the truth here, with a piece in The Nation contending that higher education is an overpriced gatekeeper for the labor force. What got her hackles up was the firing of Marilee Jones from MIT. “If she had done a miserable job as dean, MIT might have been more forgiving, but her very success has to be threatening to an institution of higher learning: What good are educational credentials anyway?”

I don’t entirely agree with Ehrenreich, though. When she gets around to discussing the reasons for the credential mania among employers, she says, “My theory is that employers prefer college grads because they see a college degree chiefly as a mark of one’s ability to obey and conform.” Nope. There are many obedient conformists among those who don’t have college degrees, and many disobedient nonconformists among those with them. The reason why employers require a college degree for jobs that don’t really require any academic aptitude or knowledge is that the college diploma signals a presumably higher level of trainability. The college degree requirement is actually a vote of no confidence in our K-12 system.