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Is university study a waste of time?

A report in 2008 suggested going to university is a waste of time (here). Perhaps this is true for some people like Tiger Woods and other professional athletes, but is it true for people who are less athletically inclined? Certainly Tiger’s career has been filled with million dollar endorsements. But it's probably not the best bet for the general public to compare themselves with elite athletes. In fact, the comparison is impossible to make. There is no way that we may compare someone who has no athletic talent with the likes of elite athletes. Even someone who failed to make it as a professional athlete but who made it very well as a college athlete, like Tim Tebow, cannot be compared with the average person. Tebow is a good investment because his accolades outweigh his inability to make it as a professional.

The article suggests that we replace a four-year degree with an assessment (or a series of assessments) designed to test a person’s ability to remember key information about his/her chosen profession. These examinations would be a “trusted” measure of their qualifications. Employers would then use the results of these qualifying exams to determine whether they would hire someone.

A summary comment is in order. This is the kind of system that European countries have in place to sort those students are well prepared to go to University from those that are well prepared to enter the trades and professional world. The system isn't perfect because we know that people who make such an assessment likely harbour some biases towards or against segments of the population. Still, it is a proposal that we should take very seriously. We should take it seriously if for no other reason than that we cannot keep sending people to University with the expectation that they will be highly paid and well compensated after they graduate without having any experience in any profession. As it stands, many University graduates in the US believe that they are owed a good job with good pay following graduation from a University. When it is pointed out to them that they will need to accumulate some experience before that happens, they scoff. Despite this, some more careful comments are in order.

First, I don’t see how a qualifying exam means one is competent and qualified for a position. The reality is that some people are really good at taking exams, while others are not. The qualifying exam will favour those who are able to competently take exams. The people who do well on exams tend to be able to discern answers meant to distract test takers from more plausible answers. They are adept that distinguishing the two. Does that sound like competence in a profession? This doesn’t sound like competency to me.

Someone who is competent in an area is able to reason their way through difficult and challenging problems that crop up in the course of completing a task. They are able to navigate through adverse times by carefully considering all possible countervailing considerations. The competent individual addresses not only the concerns that exist now but are able to anticipate future or potential problems. There doesn't seem to be a reliable means of testing for these kinds of skills in a competency test, whether written or verbal.

Second, the author argues that the bright line between college and non-college graduates would be blurred if employment decisions were based upon competency exams. Blurring the line between these two populations would mean that graduates wouldn't have any more advantage over their non-university attending colleagues. I guess this is right, but I don’t see how this would be a better world, as the author suggests. The line would be moved a step back. The author fails to consider that the exam itself would now be the metric against which we would judge whether someone was prepared for their profession. The dividing line then would be between those who passed an exam and those who did not. What’s the benefit of that? People may be more frustrated because they paid for something without their being any sufficient payoff — namely, a higher paying job or one with more benefits.

Finally, Murray overlooks the purpose of a college education (which is something that is more common these days among the general population). College introduces a person to subjects and to issues they haven’t contended with in their life. Professors expect the student to process the information and to be able to reason their way through some form of formal assessment. Higher education, unlike primary and secondary education, does not emphasize rote memorization or reporting. What the student learns in college is how to synthesize complex unfamiliar issues, and s/he must demonstrate this understanding in order to perform well in college. The notion that a competency exam would be able to test the test takers ability to synthesize and to understand material is asinine.

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