I agree that IQ, or at least some good measure of cognitive achievement, largely determines whether you succeed or not in college, although other factors can also play a role. And some people have more of it than others, so college is not for everyone. But for a large set of individuals, getting a BA does have good financial payoffs, let alone all kinds of other non-monetary payoffs that also come with education. I am not talking about the signaling story, which, according to Fabian Lange at Yale, is not a big deal. (The published version of this paper won the Journal of Labor Economics prize for best paper in 2006-2007.) For the most part, students are being rewarded for getting a BA, and the reward is not small, so they are probably learning something useful.
I also agree that individuals go to college for all kinds of reasons, and they are not necessarily trying to maximize their financial payoffs. In fact, research shows that education decisions do not seem to respond much to changes in the financial incentives to enroll in college. For a good recent example, see this essay by Joseph Altonji, Prashant Bharadwaj, and Fabian Lange, but there are many more. For the most part, students just seem to go if they are smart and they are relatively well prepared, probably because they grew up in favorable home environments and went to decent primary and secondary schools. Maybe they go in search of social status, but if they do, they learn something in the process.
One question is whether the process could be more efficient. Like most things in society, I am sure it could. But across-the-board testing looks really cumbersome, and the temptation to decide centrally what to test is always there (otherwise it is probably not a feasible system), and does not sound like a good idea. Human resources departments of firms are doing a lot of screening already, and they know what they are looking for. Furthermore, you can try people out and get rid of them if you don’t like them.
Instead of scrapping the BA, perhaps we could make it shorter, or we could make it more specialized, and let its duration vary a bit more by choice of major. Suppose we decided three years was enough. Students would start working one year earlier and they would pay one year less of tuition, which no doubt would translate into a large increase in the present value of lifetime wealth, but that’s a calculation that is not difficult to do. Of course, they would have one year less of learning, and although its value would be disputable to some, we could also try to calculate it. And many of them would have one less year of leisure, which has its value as well. But remember, there is a lot of choice out there already. There are different programs in different schools, and you can be a full-time or a part-time student. It’s not that the system is completely inflexible.
I am sure there are programs where you do not learn much, either because students are not good, the program is not good, or, most likely, a combination of both. A question is whether those are marginal programs serving the marginal student, or whether they are more prevalent. There is probably real waste out there, and credentials that are not worth much. It would be good to get rid of them, and maybe students don’t always have adequate information about the quality of the program they are choosing. So we could mandate schools to reveal more information to students, say on the average SAT of the incoming class, or the average salary of the outgoing class. Some schools reveal this, but probably they are the best ones. At lower levels of education, there is a movement towards this, in the hope that it will help parents make more informed choices.