Is a B.A. Worth It Anymore?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Mary Alice McCarthy wrote a piece for us declaring “America: Abandon Your Reverence for the Bachelor’s Degree.” A reader quotes her:

“Undergraduates are supposed to get a general education that will prepare them for training, which they will presumably get once they land a job or go to graduate school.” Au contraire:

Companies simply haven’t invested much in training their workers. In 1979, young workers got an average of 2.5 weeks of training a year. While data is not easy to come by, around 1995, several surveys of employers found that the average amount of training workers received per year was just under 11 hours, and the most common topic was workplace safety — not building new skills. By 2011, an Accenture study showed that only about a fifth of employees reported getting on-the-job training from their employers over the past five years.

Hence the great push for ever-more vocational or job-oriented college degrees. The task of training has been foisted upon higher education.

And another reader is very skeptical of the value of higher ed these days:

The Bachelor’s degree is now the equivalent of a high school diploma. No one is impressed if you have one. But if you don’t have one, they'll toss your resume aside. Colleges and universities know this, which is how they can get away with making you take classes you know you’ll never need. That’s fine for high school. But a college student shouldn’t be forced to take a sociology course or two years of foreign language, especially when he’s paying tens of thousands of dollars per year in tuition.

A Bachelor’s degree is also a convenient way for certain professions to limit their applicant pool.

In other countries, if you want to become a lawyer or a doctor, you apply directly out of high school. In this country, you need a four-year degree before you can apply to law school or med school. By the time someone finishes their undergraduate, they may already have $100,000 in debt to pay off. How inclined will they be to go to law school or med school and pile on even more debt?

As for employers, certain fields like IT don’t even care what you got your degree in. They just want to know about your skills and experience. Gone are the days where employers actually trained people. Now they expect you to be ready as soon as you walk in. Why? Because employers don’t want to spend time and money training people who’ll then apply for a higher paying job now that they have a stronger skill set.

What college needs to do is prove why a Bachelor’s degree is still worthwhile. If the best answer they can give is “because you won’t get a job without it,” that might be true, but it’s still pretty sad. And if that’s the case, they shouldn’t be forcing students to take classes they don’t want to take.

Another reader searches for solutions:

Four or five months ago, I was driving to work and listening to the radio. A commercial was playing for a program called Grads of Life which. According to the commercial [another one is embedded below], Grads of Life is a program dedicated to helping businesses hire from of a pool of workers who didn’t have degrees but possess skills and characteristics that would benefit the employers. “That’s me!” I thought, vainly. “I am possessor of the aforementioned skills and beneficial characteristics!”

Delusions of competence in tow, I hurriedly filled in the web address for the site into my browser. I envisioned the site as what I had been waiting for: some sort of job applicant aggregator that I could add my name to, coupled with some way to quantify those skills. For years, I’ve been crippled in the job market by my lack of a degree, particularly since my skills are in writing, where out-of-work journalism and writing majors are a dime a dozen.

It wasn’t meant to be, though: Grads of Life ended up being a Clinton Foundation fueled PSA program primarily designed to appear to be doing something while in reality only letting companies re-showcase their pre-existing, under-privileged worker hiring programs, without doing any additional work. What few actual programs dedicated to job pathways were dedicated to people younger than my age, and they only served a few thousand applicants a year. It was a program designed to look good and accomplish nothing.

I was disappointed, but it’s nothing new: nobody is seriously trying to establish any way for non-college educated students to find work.

But what would an effective program look like? What’s probably needed is for someone with the clout of the Clinton Foundation to convince a number of large companies to work with the government to establish a way to “test out” of certain skills that are normally certified by a diploma. An employer won’t and can’t believe an applicant who swears that he or she is smart and skilled enough for the job based on promises alone—believe me, I've tried that again and again. There needs to be another way to prove to hirers a minimum level of skills.

Universities hold a monopoly on the ability to certify many skills. I might have read widely and deeply and practiced long hours to become a skilled writer, but without a diploma to prove it, I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of applications rejected. If there was a way to do an end-run around the diploma process for at least some of the skills for which alternative non-university paths of development exist, the monopoly could be broken.

Thoughts? Drop me an email. Update from a reader:

An important point to consider regarding university monopolies on the authenticity of skills is standardized tests for various career fields. Tests for the Fundamentals of Engineering (F.E), CFA, and CPA require degree completion in that field to even sit for the test. Some even require the coursework to be at “upper division,” eliminating the possibility of associates degree holders sitting for these tests.

These careers (engineering, finance, and accounting, respectively) are three of the most lucrative careers available in the primary labor market today. They represent a clear path to the middle class. Colleges have a clear monopoly on the certifications for these degrees, meaning that the cost of an undergraduate education is another barrier to entry in all of these fields.