Innovating Credentials

(Essay) Breaking Up the College Monopoly

The cost of college tuition is high because businesses rely almost exclusively on colleges to determine employee qualifications. Today, colleges hold a monopoly on credentials, and where there are monopolies, price controls are lacking. Though some businesses, most notably in the Silicon Valley, are moving out of the narrow mindset that someone with a college degree is necessarily more qualified than someone without one, this enlightenment is yet to spread through the whole economy. Businesses need to develop their own, personally crafted methods of testing employees without involvement from colleges, which function today as long and expensive IQ tests in disguise (as Peter Thiel notes). Simultaneously, the social stigma against refraining from attending college needs to be effaced, for that empowers businesses to outsource determining qualifications to colleges.

This is not to say colleges are bad or should be erased, no more than claiming a business has a monopoly means that business should go bankrupt. In fact, the business might have a monopoly precisely because it creates so much value, but problems can still emerge when a monopoly arises. If the college monopoly on credentials was broken down and businesses personally tested employees to determine qualifications:

1. What happens to a person in his or her early twenties wouldn’t determine the projection of his or her entire life, which is especially problematic for those who mature later than others. Likewise, a child’s bad grades in school or on the SATs wouldn’t ruin his or her financial future, as a college student’s poor performance in a general requirement class wouldn’t negatively impact that student’s specific career options.

2. Businesses would have access to a larger pool of applicants from which to determine the most qualified; furthermore, they wouldn’t get the impression that someone who is extremely qualified isn’t because that individual did poorly in a class that had no relevancy to his or her career trajectory.

3. The destiny of children and particularly minority children wouldn’t be pegged to whether or not they get into a good school (see Waiting for Superman).

4. A person at any point could qualify for a better career, rather than only after four years of college (and possibly incurring a large debt). Likewise, one could prove his or her self without having to go to college, and those with college degrees wouldn’t necessarily be better off than those without them. Lastly, the stigma around not having a college degree would lessen if not entirely dissipate.

5. A person could start a career at any age: people wouldn’t have to go to or back to college to take their next career step, which might be especially beneficial to single mothers, minorities, the homeless, etc. If Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford is correct, automation may soon cause mass unemployment, but these consequences would be greatly mitigated if changing careers didn’t require attending college (again).

6. Those who did poorly in high school and didn’t make it immediately into college wouldn’t be doomed (or at least feel doomed) to fall behind those who did get into college, as those who are only able to get into a state college wouldn’t be doomed to fall behind those who got into an Ivy League.

7. College wouldn’t be (or at least seem like) a person’s only chance for success: people would have numerous chances to do well and earn a good job. Furthermore, they would have those chances without having to pass any “college test,” which is often inconsequential to the job one is hired for, as most jobs prepare their employees with training on sight. (Many of us know that lot we learn in college is never used at work.)

8. Students who failed to score high enough on an “advanced placement test” in early grades (considering that retesting doesn’t always happen) wouldn’t be forever penalized socioeconomically, seeing that how a child did in education (and so on the “track system”) wouldn’t have such dramatic effects on their career path. Furthermore, if these tests aren’t reliable, the errors of the test givers and makers wouldn’t result in qualified students being forever stifled.

9. A nation’s failure to “fix education” wouldn’t necessarily translate into setting up the youth to socioeconomically fail.

10. Every business would potentially be its own “training school,” solving the current lack of “retraining centers” for those who are unemployed. These “training centers” would be numerous and specialized (down to the locality the training centers are in), and every business that opened would potentially announce the establishment of a new school. All this without building new infrastructure, saving time and money.

11. Affirmative Action wouldn’t be so controversial, because the financial stability of minorities wouldn’t depend on admission into a good college. Also, Affirmative Action wouldn’t be accusable of taking spots from qualified whites who, for not getting in, would perhaps forever have their socioeconomic standing negatively altered.

12. People wouldn’t feel obligated to attend college in order to start a better career: people would generally only go to college who wanted an education (whether or not this resulted in making a person more employable would be secondary). This would liberate students to feel as if they could study the humanities and arts (studies usually associated with low job prospects), and help professors know that the students in their classes actually wanted to be there (versus want a job).

13. Colleges would be freed from their current identity crisis in which they must decide whether or not they exist to get students a job, to cultivate character, etc. (which is agonizing and difficult for English, philosophy, and other humanities departments in particular). Colleges could focus on providing an education, since “getting an education” and “getting a job” would be separate processes (which might make students more employable, ironically). Furthermore, professors would not be confusable with “employment coaches” (nor feel any guilt for teaching a class that didn’t directly lead to employability), and would hence be freer to be academics.

14. Colleges would be free to generate ideas and creativity without being overly concerned with whether or not students would find employment.

15. The government and taxpayer wouldn’t need to worry about financing college (though that isn’t to say they couldn’t support it), nor figure out ways to make college tuition cheaper (such as making community college free so that people can have free college credits to transfer, reducing student debt, though this isn’t to suggest that in our current system, free community college is a bad idea).

16. Applying to colleges would be far less stressful, chaotic, expensive, and/or fatalistic.

17. With education and employment separated, the society would perhaps be much better at discerning the value of ideas, actions, etc. beyond monetary valuation, because education would no longer be as mixed with financial motives.

18. The society would pay more attention to the quality of ideas rather than credentials, because at any point a person could qualify for a higher status and/or position.

19. Someone who studied English could easily apply and be tested to become an investment banker, as one who studied business could take up English. A person’s destiny wouldn’t be coupled to decisions made in their twenties and their academic expertise (which, in a world with the internet and the capability to endlessly learn, seems illogical). Additionally, the choice of what to study in college wouldn’t so much be a decision between “what one loves” and “what gets a person a job.” This would also help break down our subconscious tendency to believe that only those who major in a field can necessarily work in that field, and also efface our tendency to define people by their majors. Lastly, industries like investment banking would no longer tend to have a single mindset: people who thought like English majors would do the same jobs as people who thought like investors. As a result, the ways people thought in industries wouldn’t so easily fall victim to “tunnel vision,” which could afford greater creativity and ultimately help a society avoid economic crises and “black swans.”

20. Minority communities, which are often unfairly burdened by poor access to good schooling and so the job market, would have better access to job credentials.

21. Privilege at universities wouldn’t contribute so greatly to the unprivileged lacking opportunities to gain elite jobs.

22. No longer would “the power to qualify” be concentrated in colleges; rather, it would be given back to the people. Humans have a right to be able to prove themselves, not just when colleges decide to offer them the opportunity.

23. At any point, a person’s life could change, significantly reducing the unfair advantages of privilege. Access to opportunity would increase, as would social mobility, giving the American Dream new life, believability, and vibrancy. Personally, I think the college monopoly on credentials has particularly hurt the American Dream (though this isn’t to say colleges shouldn’t exist at all, only that they shouldn’t have a monopoly on credentials).

24. Resumes wouldn’t be overvalued, which are easier for upper classes to build.

25. Colleges would have to compete with businesses to offer credentials and/or skills which justified the costs. With competition in place, tuitions would fall, and there would be less doubt that Masters belonged to masters. Competition would reform.

26. Everyone would be able to work alongside those from Ivy Leagues, and Ivy Leagues like Harvard would lose their monopoly on “elite statuses” (though they could still hold a prestige in being truly top-notch places of academia) Not only would this increase diversity, but the ability of citizens to prove themselves would no longer be contingent on their capacity to graduate from Harvard, but more so on their capacity to develop the abilities and skills which Harvard represents. Currently, the power of the Ivy Leagues comes from their capacity to grant the qualified perpetual and elite status and employability. If we graduate from Harvard once, we have always graduated from Harvard; if we don’t graduate from Harvard, even if we come to be as qualified as someone from Harvard, we still didn’t graduate from Harvard. Without testing in the business world, the only way a person can prove that he or she is of Harvard capability is by graduating from Harvard, and since that would entail moving, radical life alterations, and possible debt, many (especially those with family responsibilities and/or outstanding circumstances) are unable to achieve this status, even if they more than deserve it. This is especially damaging to the lower classes and institutionalizes the grip the upper class has on the upper class.

27. Colleges could offer classes to help someone achieve employment, but students wouldn’t be (indirectly) forced to take those classes. Furthermore, there could still be truancy laws, but this would perhaps be because the state honors “being a full person” over “employment”: if college didn’t feel like it was just about “getting a job,” the meaning of school in general could shift.

28. College costs would have to decrease, as colleges couldn’t increase prices on the premise that people have no other choice but to go to college to get a good career. Furthermore, colleges wouldn’t be “too big to fail.”

29. Student loan debt would likely drop with tuition, and students then wouldn’t have to worry about getting through college as fast as possible to save money. They could focus on learning rather than paying for a degree.

30. Colleges would have to charge a fairer market value for an education, and finally it could be determined more accurately how much society actually values the arts, philosophy, literature, etc., because no longer would our discernment be as blurred by our discrimination of employment being the standard of valuation.

31. Students wouldn’t have to worry about learning how to navigate the complicated loan system at a time when they are already having to wade through countless, complex unknowns (on top of high school classes, college applications, commitments, etc.), which is a time in which students could be especially susceptible to sign up for a bad plan that could have lifelong ramifications.

32. High schools wouldn’t be college factories, and teachers could grade without worrying that they are dooming students to never be able to access a good job, saving both students and teachers existential stress.

33. Any interest, at any point, could help an individual’s employability, so no longer would citizens feel as if their interests are valid only to the degree they directly contribute to one’s major or to one’s competitiveness in the job market. Furthermore, since citizens could pass an employer’s test at any point, no longer would time spent on interests be easily seen as time not spent on building a resume: everything could possibly contribute.

34. Citizens would no longer feel as polarized, by themselves and others, in choosing between interests and work. Society currently seems split between “passion people” and “businesspeople” (to use general terms): a break down of the credential monopoly could help solve this split.

35. With more affordable college tuition, a person could study literature, the humanities, etc. (this goes for all subjects) without incurring a large debt burden. Consequently, there would be a higher chance that more, lower class people could study fields traditionally considered elitist (like philosophy, literature, etc.), and this would benefit culture and creativity.

By ending the college monopoly on credentials, the hope isn’t to end college, but to help it. Competition improves businesses, helps bring down prices, and increases services; where there are monopolies, there are inefficiencies. As discussed by Lorenzo Canonico, there are numerous ways colleges add value: universities help people commit to hard tasks that are good for them, are extraordinary epicenters for intellectual growth, and help cultural exchanges by bringing together people of highly variant backgrounds (to name a few virtues). In ending the monopoly on credentials, the hope is that colleges will do better what it already does well.

Education shouldn’t just be about getting a job, but also about developing character and one’s humanity, and in developing good character, citizens will become more employable. Unfortunately, the reverse doesn’t necessarily apply: someone who is employable isn’t necessarily someone with good character. By focusing on employment, colleges have perhaps not only ceased to be efficient at making students employable, but also left students confused about what really matters, implying that humans are only as valuable as their utility, despite their best efforts. Colleges have also perhaps contributed to corruption, not instilling values, and to the “profit at any cost”-mindset that pervades some businesses.

It is possible that the college monopoly on credentials was empowered by Supreme Court rulings against employment testing, such as in cases like Griggs v. Duke Power Co. Employment testing may have become legally risky due to concerns about discrimination and civil rights, and rather than stress over legal concerns, it’s easier for businesses to pass the responsibility onto colleges. Unfortunately, the good intent of the Supreme Court may have unintentionally hurt minorities, contributing to a growing and self-feeding divide between the lower and upper classes. All the same, colleges wrestle with problems of discrimination and admissions disfavoring minorities: the Supreme Court decision may have simply moved the problem from the private sector to education, doing little at great cost.

Until businesses can easily test employees, the role of colleges to either make students employable or educated will always blur. To comment on a thought of Michael Sandel, a point of education is to keep market valuations and forces from invading the areas of personal and civil life that market forces should respect, and to equip citizens with the capability to determine which areas are which. If businesses tested employees, our lives would probably be less invaded by market valuations, because we would have the character and so the discernment to value things for ourselves based on standards of “good.” With education and employment clearly defined apart, we would be better enabled to determine our own values, rather than be increasingly reliant on (“enframing”) market values to underline our choices and worldviews. This isn’t to say market values are always detrimental and/or exclusive — a painting could have both a monetary value and an aesthetic value — the problem is when market values become the only ones or when they supersede all others in all circumstances. Rather than unintentionally encourage giving into this urge, a point of education is to help humans resist the urge to rely on simple and easy values over values that have to be cultivated through learning and self-discovery. The later values are necessary for adding flavor and meaning to life beyond our bank statements and job titles.

A mission of education is to know what life is beyond employment. This isn’t to say that employment is bad and not an important part of life, only that employment isn’t all that life is about. Ultimately, as Bertrand Russell suggests, the role of education is to help us overcome the temptation to be lazy and bored in leisure, to instead be “present” and constructive. What that entails though, must be expanded on elsewhere in “The Creative Concord” and “Joy to the World,” both by O.G. Rose.

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Additions

1. According to Charles Murray in Coming Apart, the better a society gets at identifying talent, the more general social mobility will decline. This is because as talent is identified, it is gathered together (usually into universities), separating the talented from the untalented, hence cutting the untalented off from the genes, social capital, and resources which can help them climb up the social ladder. Furthermore, as the talented are gathered, they tend to marry and form communities together, further concentrating their genes, social capital, and resources. This creates a large divide between the lower and upper classes, one that is mostly a consequence of the institutions of higher education. There are two ways to overcome this problem: shove everyone into an Ivy League or break up the monopoly colleges have on credentials. With credentials distributed, talent wouldn’t be so concentrated, and not only would this increase general social mobility, it would help keep those with high IQs from “living in a bubble” and failing to see how everyday Americans live everyday lives. This would perhaps help increase diversity, empathy, and the sense of life’s richness.

2. We must ask ourselves which is worse: the possibility of discrimination against minorities and the unprivileged through employment testing, or the college monopoly on credentials, which hurts minorities and the unprivileged?

3. If a person lives in Spain for six months and learns Spanish fluently, but also takes Spanish classes, how can it be said for sure that the individual would have learned Spanish without the classes? Following this train of thought, once a person attends Medical School, it can never be said for sure what abilities the person gained from education versus from experience. If the person claims he gained everything from experience, he could be wrong; if he says education is what equipped him, he could also be wrong. As two rivers that merge become indistinguishable, so school and work experience become indistinguishable in an individual who goes through both. Hence, where one is required by law to attend school before they are allowed to gain work experience, it will never be possible to determine if the individual could have become equally capable had he or she just went straight into a job. There will always be room for doubt.

Perhaps an individual doesn’t need school as much as a person needs work experience? But how can we tell unless we compare a person who wants to be a doctor who goes straight to residency with one who goes to school but not residency? And even if we carried out this experiment, the results would only readily apply to those involved in the experiment: there would always be room for doubt. Yet if going straight to residency resulted in the same level of skill as someone who either was just educated or who both attended residency and was educated, wouldn’t it be more efficient to just attend residency? Surely it would be, and this pushes the need to consider the value of employment testing. (Furthermore, employees that turned out to not be qualified could be more easily fired, employers not feeling obligated to keep them because of all the college debt they had amassed. Additionally, employees could move around more freely between careers (after finding out what each is really like), not being “saddled down” by a major or debt.)

That aside, my main point is that there will always be doubt about whether individuals can be qualified without college, because most of the people in our civilization that are qualified have also gone to college. For this is how the society has, in essence, forced it to be (via licensing, resumes, social expectations, etc.). Hence, the society has made itself, in a sense, “have to believe” that school is necessary for expertise: by how it has arranged itself, it has arranged the “evidence” to appear to itself as such (and also made it so that the only way it could change is by undergoing a significant existential crisis). This will make it very difficult for the society to believe the suggestions presented in this paper about employment testing. Whether or not this paper is ultimately right will be up to others to determine, but the “toward-ness of evidence,” if not recognized, will make it hard for others to make a clear and accurate discernment.

4. The college monopoly on credentials contributes to the formation of “intellectuals” and “experts” whose authority has been warned about from the works of Thomas Sowell to Nassim Taleb. Where there are intellectual elites, there tends to be forecast errors, assumptions of competence, and overconfidence (as Malcolm Gladwell has lectured on), all while making us increasingly less “antifragile” (or capable of gaining from disorder) and increasingly “fragile” (to use the lexicon from Antifragile by Nassim Taleb).

5. Where there are more tests, testing becomes more a dynamic and organic process (as “free exchange” is described in “Equality and Its Immoral Limits” by O.G. Rose), and so the more tests come to accurately reflect reality.

6. Generally, people’s lives are structured around their relation to education. Most of our friends are a result of which schools we attend, as which jobs we work are likely influenced by connections we made at school. Internships, social capital, spouses — how all of these enter our lives is dramatically impacted by the educational system, a system which thrives on holding a monopoly status on credentials. If the monopoly was broken up, there would be more variation in how people found their spouses, acquired connections, found employment, made friends, and so on: the possibility of gaining these things wouldn’t practically end with school. There would be more life beyond school, for both those who finish it and those who never choose to enter school in the first place.

7. I would point out that the college monopoly on credentials has led to high tuition prices, which have lead colleges to making themselves “hyper-real” to help justify the cost (to allude to Baudrillard). As a result, college is often described as “the best four years” of a person’s life, and I fear this can contribute to overall unhappiness. College also indirectly teaches students that “the best four years” of life are made and constructed by others for them — given that they can afford the entrance fee — rather than “the best of life” be that which people create for themselves. College gives students a taste of paradise that is then taken from them, and having tasted paradise and lost it (and the only possibility of regaining it either being by going back to college or making it themselves — a perhaps impossible task), most despair.

8. Because colleges have a monopoly on credentials, a lot of pressure is put on elementary, middle, and high schools to prepare kids for college. This pressure may make it difficult to discipline children appropriately (for their sake), and also make it unimaginable for a teacher to expel or fail a student, even if that is needed to “wake up” the student. Disciplining students can cause teachers incredible existential anxiety, knowing how much rides on school performance. If discipline is what children need to straighten up and handle education, the monopoly on credentials held by colleges contributes to the failure of schools to equip children with what they need to succeed. However, if teachers knew that college wasn’t “the only way,” they may feel much freer to do what needs to be done to give students the best possible education.

9. Especially as it undergoes inflation and a master’s degree increasingly becomes the new bachelor’s degree, the monopoly on credentials increasingly forces people to choose between marriage, children, and advancing themselves professionally. People are increasingly marrying later in life, and though this isn’t inherently bad, I believe the monopoly on credentials unnecessarily forces this trade-off upon people. Inherently, those better-off socioeconomically can more realistically make this trade-off, for they aren’t as much in need of the economic benefits and stability that marriage can provide, nor are they as much in need of starting a fulltime job earlier in life. Furthermore, those who start a family younger, for whatever reason, are unnecessarily handicapped in trying to advance themselves professionally, when they very well might be the most qualified and best for the job.

10. Online education improves access to credentials for the everyday person, but I don’t believe it’s as effective as breaking up the monopoly entirely. I believe there is still a stigma against an online degree, and furthermore, my passing of an employment test for a particular business is much more likely to be a reflection of my competence for that business than my obtaining of a general education degree. Additionally, online education is still very experience and unnecessarily time-consuming.

11. There is no “graduating from Harvard,” per se, only “graduating from a certain collection of (perhaps random) Harvard classes: Political Science 200, Physics 100, Existentialism 400, etc.” Considering this, it is rare that any two people who graduate from a given college do so with the exact same education, even though the phrase “graduated from Harvard” seems to imply a general identicalness. There is no “general knowledge” that people who graduate from college necessarily have (other than vague capacities like “critical thinking,” which themselves aren’t guaranteed): what a person graduates from college learning varies radically from individual to individual. Considering this, it is especially strange that colleges hold a monopoly on credentials, because there is no “one thing” college certifies at all. What college teaches is too random and complex, but if the credential monopoly was broken up, I think there would be more versatility and freedom in the socioeconomic system to account for those complex differences.

11.1 It is not necessarily the case that the given assortment of information a given person learns at a given college is “more useful” than a given assortment a different person learns from life without attending college, but if the credential monopoly isn’t broken up, it will unfairly seem that way.

12. I believe “innovating credentials” would go a long way to addressing many of the concerns of Ivan Illich, as written about in his Deschooling Society.

13. “The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans” by Neil Gabler casts a light on a disturbing reality: a large percentage of the middle class lives on the brink of bankruptcy; the line between “lower class” and “middle class” is increasingly fading away, more of a matter of appearance than substance. This isn’t to say much of the middle class is in poverty, but to say that they are suffering from financial distress, pressure, and “fragility,” and the cause for this isn’t materialism, but a desire to provide opportunities for children in a world where failure to attend college has increasingly dire circumstances. If the college monopoly on credentials was broken up, I believe the “financial fragility” of the middle class would be greatly reduced.

14. It is probable that colleges will be against the ideas presented in this paper, seeing that it will break up their monopoly; then again, perhaps colleges will recognize how much they will benefit from the new system of accreditation, if for nothing more than the fact it will provide a liberal “critique” that will bring out the best in them.

15. To allude to Barry Schwartz and his TedTalk “Why Justice Isn’t Enough,” college admissions can never be fair and just. Schwartz argues that those who are accepted into colleges tend to deserve it, but it is not the case that those who don’t get into colleges don’t deserve to be admitted: there is some fairness, but only some. Colleges cannot possibly provide accommodations to everyone who deserves to be admitted, and consequently lots of people who should attend UVA don’t get the chance. Admissions offices argue that they have good reasons for admitting person x and not person y, but Schwartz believes they are fooling themselves: ultimately, it’s all arbitrary, but frankly there is no way for the selection process not to be ultimately arbitrary. This being the case, Schwartz believes colleges should put all the worthy applicants into a hat and draw names at random: in fact, this would be fairer, and give people a proper sense of the role luck plays in determining outcome, leading to valuable humility.

I think Schwartz’s idea should be implemented, but along with it, I think there needs to be a breakup of the college monopoly on credentials (which will lower incentive to “game the system,” help break up “opportunity-for-credentials inequality,” lower concerns about “indoctrination” at schools, etc.). Both innovations would help make the world a more just and fairer place, while simultaneously increasing humility and hope in the future. The credential monopoly broken up, whether “pulled out of an admissions hat” or not, a person would still have numerous options, and at any point could prove that he or she was as qualified as someone from an Ivy League. Yes, lots of deserving people still wouldn’t be admitted into Harvard, but this fact would not shrink the future prospects of the individuals nearly as much as it does now. There would be more justice.

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UNO Prize Finalist. The Write Launch. Iowa Review. Allegory Ridge. Streetlight. Ponder. Pidgeonholes. W&M Review. Poydras. Toho. www.ogrose.com

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