America's Overselling Of College Degrees

A major, unintended consequence of the way America has oversold higher education is that degrees no longer betoken much learning or achievement. To maximize the number of paying customers, most colleges and universities have watered down the curriculum and allowed (even encouraged) faculty members to inflate grades. And this is while the cost of attending has gone up, up, up.

In today’s Martin Center article, Michael J. Pearce, founder of The Representational Art Conference, looks at this sad state of affairs and suggests a solution.

Pearce writes that, “Over the last decade, the number of Americans with a bachelor’s degree or higher has increased from 31 percent to 39 percent. The problem is that college is getting easier, not that our students are getting smarter. ‘GPAs have been rising due to relaxed standards. These relaxed standards account for much of the increase in college graduation rates,’ Jeffrey T. Denning of Brigham Young University writes in an NBER working paper on college completion rates. ‘We find that student characteristics, institutional resources, and institution attended explain little of the change in graduation rates.’”

Consequently, many college grads now find that in a labor market glutted with people holding BA degrees, they either have to settle for mundane employment, or “invest” in yet more formal education.

Pearce sees a way to solve or at least lessen that problem. It is the requirement of schools of art that each student prepare a “masterpiece” that is meant to show concretely what he or she can do. He writes, “In the present, when visual arts employers look for new employees they no longer consider the GPA of their applicants as the most significant measure of the quality of the candidate. Now, candidates’ portfolios have become the measure of their skill, their masterpiece. In art-related jobs, applicants must show that they have mastered the fundamentals of the job by showing their work.”

And there is no reason why only art schools could do that. Colleges generally could insist or at least encourage students not to rely just on an academic transcript, but on a work that is meant to impress prospective employers. The ones that figured that out would gain a big competitive advantage.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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