The Eroding Value of the College Sheepskin

testby James A. Bacon

Thanks to college inflation, Grade Point Averages (GPAs) don’t reveal as much as they once did. The percentage of As given by college and university professors has nearly tripled between 1940 and 2008, according to a 2012 study of 200 four-year educational institutions. Even a college diploma is more a mark of “social class than an indicator of academic accomplishment,” stated a co-author of the study, as quoted by the Wall Street Journal.

As a consequence, major employers from Procter & Gamble to General Mills have ceased relying upon the GPA as an indicator of potential job success. In a parallel trend, more students are enrolling in Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs); they are learning something, but it is often not clear how much. The marketplace is crying out for a means to test peoples’ critical thinking skills, whether they graduate from a traditional four-year college or not.

The Council for Aid to Education has stepped in with a new assessment test that is rapidly gaining market acceptance. This academic year, some 200 colleges will administer Collegiate Learning Assessment tests to create objective, benchmarked report cards measuring college students’ critical thinking skills.

The CLA+ test constitutes yet another force eroding the traditional model of higher education. Writes the Journal:

The new voluntary test, which the nonprofit behind it calls CLA+, represents the latest threat to the fraying monopoly that traditional four-year colleges have enjoyed in defining what it means to be well educated. …

The CLA+ will be open to anyone — whether they are graduating from a four-year university or have taken just a series of MOOCs — and students will be allowed to show their scores to prospective employees.

Four-year educational institutions have long functioned as credentialing entities, certifying that its graduates have mastered certain competencies. But many institutions are failing in that regard. (For an example close to home, witness the case of Norfolk State University, where the board of visitors fired President Tony Atwater last week. Among other problems, according to the Associated Press, NSU has been barred by the Virginia Board of Nursing from accepting new students into its associate degree nursing program because of low pass rates on the national licensing exam.)

Imagine what will happen if young people don’t need a college sheepskin to enter the white-collar job market. Imagine if they could obtain their skills and credentials through MOOCs or hybrid programs — and save thousands of dollars in tuition and fees used to sustain tenured professors and bloated academic bureaucracies. Elite institutions probably have little to fear. A CLA+ won’t replace a sheepskin from the University of Virginia or William & Mary any time soon. But the leaderships of second- and third-tier institutions need to think good and hard how they will cope with the coming disruption. For a university like NSU, its long-term survival could be at stake.

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24 responses to “The Eroding Value of the College Sheepskin”

  1. Breckinridge Avatar

    The Tin Man wanted a heart and the Scarecrow wanted a brain. The Wizard gave the Scarecrow a piece of sheepskin with writing upon and conferred upon him wisdom….

    This test will catch on if the human resource officers recognize it or even begin to demand it. It will be of greatest value to individuals with some college or great life experience who want what the Scarecrow wanted — some independent credential which illustrates the level of knowledge or skill they already have. But do not expect the Establishment to take this lying down.

    In the professions of course there are already independent licensing test, which you will not pass if you snoozed in school. The bar exam, the CPA’s, the professional engineering tests, the medical boards, nursing license tests, even the real estate license exam. We now require teachers to be tested. It was a high failure rate on the nursing tests that got NSU into trouble, and rightly so.

    But unless you take the GRE looking to go to grad school, there is no independent measurement on the liberal arts or even the hard sciences side. Taking this test might set the better graduates apart, and if some institutions which are failing founder, well, that’s the marketplace. But I think you overstate the impact. I can take the GED test now and skip high school, but I don’t see many people doing it.

  2. we’re seeing this at the K-12 level also.

    NYC adopted the common core standards which, unlike, earlier, assessments, include critical thinking and problem solving and test scores plummeted.

    Ditto in Va where last year the reading SOLs required additional critical thinking for reading and it dropped SOL reading scores in many, if not most schools across the state:

    ” Virginia reading scores drop by double digits on new SOL test”

    Virginia’s new online standardized tests, which align with revised academic standards, represent a shift from emphasizing minimum skills children should have at specific grade levels to measuring higher-order thinking skills and knowledge. In addition to the new reading tests, more challenging writing and science tests were rolled out this past year. Scores for those subjects also dipped.

    State academic tests are getting more difficult throughout the country. New exams are being developed by two consortia of states that have signed on to updated standards called the Common Core, which aims to create a more national view of K-12 education. Virginia is one of a few states that has not adopted Common Core, instead independently revising its learning standards to better meet the expectations of employers and colleges.

  3. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    This is a positive development indeed. Not only is such testing critically needed in today’s world of “higher education,” it also offers hope that folks in higher education are starting to see the need to responsibly test to determine the benefits derived from higher education by the students who pay for it, and devote years of their lives in an effort to become educated.

    In part, this new testing is critically necessary because the Accreditation Agencies that oversee Higher Education today are thoroughly corrupt. First these agencies were hijacked by the bottom feeders of higher education who use them to hide their own gross incompetent and to continue to rip off the futures of those they are fiduciary bound to serve. In my personal view, what has been going on now for far too long amounts to criminal activity, a fraud and duplicity of the worse sort.

    Most recently, however, a new threat has arisen. Those Accreditation Agencies are threatened with being overwhelmed by their own bureaucratic staffs who are trying to deep insert themselves into the daily operations of the colleges and universities and are using the lever of federal funding to force their way into the inner workings of those institutions. And thus to wrest control of the accreditation process from non profit bottom feeders.

    The Obama administrations newly announced initiative should raise alarm bells in all quarters, however much reform is otherwise needed.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      In short, what we are talking about here is Larryg’s top down centralized government control of what our adult children learn, and who teaches them, and how those professors teach, in our colleges and universities, unless those institutions undertake their own quality assurance measures.

      1. not mine Reed. It is the reality – and not only here but in all OECD countries – more than a billion people.

        Public education is by definition top-down, centrally-managed as are most Colleges and the Armed forces…

        what do you think the SATs are if not top-down, centrally- managed?

        It’s what the founding fathers put in the Constitution – an elected govt that would centrally-manage the country including the military.

        In the Constitution of Va – it states that the State will be responsible for setting standards for education for public schools.

        it’s the reality Reed – not my idea.

        1. reed fawell III Avatar
          reed fawell III

          I cannot imagine a more frightening illustration of the problem we face.

          1. well…. if you consider the way the country was designed by the forefathers as “frightening” …. well.. okay.

            The day the forefathers signed the document that said two houses of Congress and a POTUS elected – they signed off on a top-down, centrally-managed country.

            not sure how it would have worked out differently unless we were going to end up with a real tinpot dictator … like other, less fortunate countries.

    2. re: ” The Obama administrations newly announced initiative should raise alarm bells in all quarters, however much reform is otherwise needed”

      more wretched partisan blather…

      do you think the SOLs in Va were dictated by Obama?

      How about the SAT?

      how about the Common Core?

      why do you dredge us this totally partisan stuff when all of these things including NCLB happened BEFORE Obama ever became POTUS – and he can only do what the law requires – the law that Congress passed – not him.

      this is just loony Reed.

  4. well.. assessment is not accreditation. one is part of the other but accreditation can have far lower academic performance thresholds than assessments.

    so .. when you talk about SAT or ACT or K-12 SOLs and Common Core, they are not directly connected to accreditation.

    Accreditation is usually MORE than just the assessments.

    It includes things like the qualifications of the instructors and the staff to student ratio, etc…

    To give a separate, more clear example – the Armed Forces have their own entrance/qualification assessments – known as the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery – which not only tests the academic competence of those tested but also determines what job classifications they qualify for – to receive additional job-specific training.

    there is no conventional “accreditation”. That function is done by the armed services themselves when they set their own standards for their own training programs…. in terms of teacher qualifications, course content, rigor and required competency to pass….etc.

    There is less rigor for the private sector for many occupations but not all.
    For instance, if you get a Medical Degree, or an Engineering or Law Degree, etc.. there are industry groups that will “accredit” a University program for these degrees. If you take a look the next time in a Doctor’s office – you ‘ll see these separate certifications.

    Any industry group can “accredit” any Universities program for a particular occupation… and what that “accreditation” is,in reality, is the industry certifying that the curriculum at the University does cover the specific disciplines that the industry thinks are required to achieve the minimum standards for a “degree” in that field.

    The “generic”, non-industry-specific accreditation entities are a different story – and are much more loosey-goosey and driven by factors other than industry-specific requirements.

    Keep in mind – any entity can “accredit” using whatever criteria they choose. Check out and compare the accreditations for – private, for-profit higher ED companies – as compared to not-for profit, state-supported Universities and Colleges – not the same accreditation folks –

    I think we’re going to see more on this issue – in general – as we see online courses offered – because the rigor of the material and required competence is going to be at question and I’ll give an example. How do you know that the guy who completed the online course is the guy who is getting the certificate? how do you know the distance learner is not an imposter completing the course for a fee for the customer?

    this is going to become an accreditation element. Schools are going to have to demonstrate that they have a way to assure that the the person who completed the course is the guy/gal who got the certificate.

    institutions that don’t have good proof – are going to have a hard time satisfying employers that the student is the person who took the material and is qualified.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      Larry “well.. assessment is not accreditation. one is part of the other but accreditation can have far lower academic performance thresholds than assessments.”

      Larry, check your facts. You have not the slightest notion what your are talking about.

      1. Reed – if you have a point to make then back it up guy or else I’ll just return the favor that YOU don’t know what the H you are talking about – which I find fairy easy to say.

        assessment is NOT accreditation.

        If you have MORE to ADD to this – then fine. otherwise move on.

        1. reed fawell III Avatar
          reed fawell III

          Go back to the four articles I have written here on the subject. Dig into the material referred to in those articles and found on other websites, and figure out for yourself why you do not know what you are talking about. That will take hard work and a good deal of time on your part and it will require that you keep mouth shut long enough to master the subject. I’m doubt you will any of the above. Instead, based on your past behavior, I am confident that you will do the reverse, that is that you will continue to go about insulting others on your way to demonstrating your remarkable ignorance on all the various subjects that you banally lecture and insult others about.

          1. Reed and Larry, Calm down, dudes. This exchange has been getting more and more heated. I understand that people with opposing views can be very frustrating (trust me, I KNOW). But no need to insult one another’s intelligence. The Bacon’s Rebellion philosophy: Keep the dialogue civil. If you can’t, bite your tongue and drop the subject. I have done so myself on many an occasion.

          2. Jim Bacon – I’ve been good with your philosophy ever since I’ve been here – and will continue .

            My philosophy has always been to treat others as they treat me.

            If I have insulted or “lectured” anyone, I certain will apologize when called on it.

            but when Reed makes broad-brushed anti-govt wacko-bird narratives that he manages to tie to any issue from accreditation to SOLs to land-use… well.. sorry that kind of narrative deserves to be addressed.

            As I said – I intend to NOT personalize and if what I say is received as personalizing, all I need is a comment telling me that and I will promptly apologize and go back and understand where I went wrong on my comment.

          3. and Jim – I have no problem what-so-ever – right now to apologize to any insult that Reed thinks was directed at him personally.

            I am not perfect by any stretch and I know that I can get under people’s skin.. and have …

            So Reed – I apologize to you right now if you think you need one.
            If you let me know what exactly I did that you considered a need to apologize for – let me know and I’ll take that into account in future discussions.

      2. and Reed – to ensure we both are on the same wavelength –
        this is one of my “facts”:

        now.. I’d like to know if you “agree” with what is in this reference or not.

        if you agree – then we have a misunderstanding of which I’d claim my share of. If you reject this explanation of accreditation, then my original suspicions of where you are coming from are confirmed and I’ll proceed accordingly in the future when reading your views.

        what’s your answer?

        1. reed fawell III Avatar
          reed fawell III

          see above.

          1. see above

  5. Darrell Avatar

    Employers don’t care about SOLs. They care about whether you can follow a SOP.

  6. re: SOPs – indeed!

    but if you can’t read and understand that SOP so that you can perform it competently – they do care.

    We have no shortage of employers, colleges and even the armed forces telling us that way too many are showing up with significant education deficits that require remedial training to get to entry level and some can’t even do that because they are too far back.

    about 1/3 of high school grads cannot meet the armed forces minimum aptitude standards necessary to just be prepared to receive job specific training for their needs and this 1/3 are grads – the 25% who don’t graduate are even lower down the totem pole.

    Not that many years ago – some guy named Gates – before he even finished school built a new-fangled computer critter – in his garage.

    Since then the world has moved at light speed in the technological world – but our education system (unlike the OECD countries) has hardly changed and now we have people who have no idea how to program their remotes, how a smartphone really works, are operate much of the equipment the armed services use.

    I’m not at all convinced that charter/choice schools are going to do much better than public schools if we do not establish 21st century standards for all providers – public and private.

    What’s happened to the Colleges is they won’t turn someone away because they are barely competent in reading, writing and comprehension – but their course of study and diploma is also minimal and the employers are finding it out – that it’s not the diploma any more – it’s what you actually are capable of doing – or not.

    it’s not like we don’t graduate competent people. We still graduate Doctors and Computer Science and Engineers and others who received substantial educations – it’s that there is a class of folks who basically avoided the more rigorous courses – both in high school and college thinking that _any_ degree is better than _no_ degree – and to a certain extent they are still correct but those minimal degrees are getting less and less useful to employers who have real needs for competence.

    Kids fail – when they get into material that they cannot read and understand. It frustrates them.. it defeats them and so they steer away from the things they cannot do well.

    This starts in K-3 when they do not get an adequate enough grounding in basic reading and writing comprehensive and problem solving. From that point on – they are stunted in their ability unless someone forces them back into remedial courses – which is pretty hard on the ego also.

  7. Darrell Avatar

    Ya know, I write SOPs all the time. They are much like many of the technical manuals we used to have years ago. The idea is to write to the lowest level possible so that someone with user level experience can do things like install a SQL server on a computer, create the database, and actually use obtuse over engineered software to accomplish tasks. Yet somehow the ongoing educational view is that everyone should have at least a Master’s Degree in their chosen career.

    Must be pretty disheartening for the Captains of Industry having to rely on high school graduates to provide guidance for PhD’s.

  8. ” Must be pretty disheartening for the Captains of Industry having to rely on high school graduates to provide guidance for PhD’s.”

    well.. in the high tech world – if you are a CEO or a PHD and you do not understand the pace and direction of where technology is headed then your company may likely be a zombie , a dodo – in terms of sustainability.

    the speed by which technology obsoletes/displaces other technologies today is breath-taking.

    Darrell.. I was involved in that also – documentation and software that folks at the sailor level could utilize but also people right out of college dealing with military weaponry that employs technologies based on science they did not learn in college. example: Many years ago a BS in Math (which you need to understand orbital mechanics) but no background in programming – which you need to be able to embed the math in a general purpose computer model or in the actual embedded fire control system.

    In order to be able to successfully write a computer model of a weapon operating in a real world environment – you have to be able to READ to Comprehend – to LEARN what you don’t know – about complex relationships…

    At the sailor level which still may not have college degrees or if they do not the same as the folks who design the build the system.

    1. – in order to KNOW , IF one can operate something in a casualty mode – you have to understand fundamentally how the thing works ….how the technology works…and be able to troubleshoot/diagnose if, for instance, the problem is with the software or the hardware…..

    2. – in order to perform maintenance, updates, patches, upgrades, etc… again it can take more than ” perform the following steps” … if something goes sideways… and if you’re on patrol and your systems are down – ..well…. “patrol” becomes abbreviated until someone can fly out…..

    Early on, I’d spend many a day reading thick manuals… and having additional literature available that would explain phrases and words that I had never seen before. I got not only tired of reading manuals but tired of finding out – over and over – just how ignorant I was…!!!!

    I’ve been amused of late of young folks talking about “jailbreaking” their phones to put “cool” apps on them that had not been “curated” (allowed) by the manufacturer – only to discover that you can “brick” (render useless) your phone/tablet because you really did not understand WHY the manufacturer curated the software to start with – and that EVEN if you are successful – you likely have divorced your unit from the ability to have OS upgrades in the future (or you break your home-brewed App.

    The kids know how to write “apps” but they don’t understand fundamentally how the whole/rest of the operating system works ….

    but give these kids credit, they’re a whole lot closer to understanding the technology than the vast majority of people who own and use that technology.

    If you are a kid who is going to grow up in a world – where things like smartphones, tablets, drones, self-driving cars, etc are where the jobs are – you’re not going to get those jobs with a generic HS diploma followed by a generic college degree.

    You have to be pointed to that job goal – not “getting a degree” goal.

    The kids with the best chances in this world are the kids whose parents are employed in these high tech fields themselves and KNOW that the PATH requires a rigorous core curriculum in K-12 – followed by a hard-science (or MBA, Medical, Engineering) path in college.

  9. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    This is one hell of a dogfight. Anybody want to bet on a winner. I put fifty bucks on lgross to win and $25 for reed to show. Anyone want part of this action?

  10. gee Peter.. I woulda thought at least a hundred…

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