What Justifies the Stigma of Not Getting a BA?

Am I the only man of the people in this gaggle? The three commentaries are all written from the perspective of people for whom the current system works just fine. A central tenet of my argument that we really ought to engage is this:  The current system punishes the 70 percent of kids who don’t get BAs, and punishes them viciously. Surely none of the commentators will argue with that when it comes to the social punishments. (I’ll reserve the economic punishments for another time.) The class stigma that goes with being “just a high school graduate” is too obvious for anyone to deny it.

So if you have a system that punishes 70 percent of young people setting out in life, the first question to ask is, to what end? What are the compensating good things that the piece of paper called a BA provides that justify the punishment? It’s not enough to say that it provides information that, faute de mieux, employers find useful. The question to ask is: Can we provide the same information in any other way—and the answer is  yes, easily.

Or consider the four years of time that a BA ordinarily requires. If you have the time and the money, no problem—and that seems to have been the case for the three commentators (as it was for me). Hey, I learned stuff, had a good time, and I was sorry to see the four years end. But what about all the young people who don’t have the time or the money for four years? There are a whole lot of them. Right now, we are saying to them that they have to go deep into debt and spend a couple of years that they don’t want to spend, because the BA takes four years, and that’s all there is to it. Why?

I guess I’m asking my colleagues to step back from a system that worked for them and consider the large majority of young people who are not in their position. The current system imposes severe punishments and burdens on them. We shouldn’t be doing it if we don’t have damned good reasons for it. What is it about the BA that necessitates those costs?

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s provocative lead essay, the American Enterprise Institute’s Charles Murray draws from his new book, Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality, to argue against America’s obsession with the four-year BA degree. Murray argues that the BA “wreaks harm on a majority of young people, is grotesquely inefficient as a source of information for employers, and is implicated in the emergence of a class-riven America.” Murray contends that vocational training and a new regime of certification testing would provide a superior alternative to a college degree for many high school grads.

Response Essays

  • Economist Pedro Carneiro of University College London — an authority on the relationship between education, human capital, and wages — agrees with much of Murray’s argument, but questions its relevance. Some people may be making a mistake in pursuing a BA, but it’s not a very big mistake, Carneiro says. “For most of those enrolling in college, a BA has a good expected return, but there is some risk,” and not notably more risk than with other investments. The real worry, Carneiro argues, is that stagnation in college enrollments “may cause problems for [economic] growth in the years to come.”

  • George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan agrees with Charles Murray’s claims that not everyone is suited to college, that four years is too long, and that few career-relevant skills are learned there. But then what explains the wage premium for college grads? Caplan notes that Murray flirts with a “signaling” model but argues he needs to take it more seriously. But then why haven’t certification test already caught on, Caplan wonders. Why don’t employers already cut out the college middle man and directly hire top high school grads? “An unfortunate implication of the signaling model is that cutting the BA down to size will be a lot harder than Murray thinks. As far as employers are concerned, the BA works.”

  • Kevin Carey, research and policy manager for Education Sector, argues that the “mass production of bachelor’s degrees” in the 20th century gave the United States one of the world’s best-educated labor forces, and all signs point to the stunning success of mass higher education. Carey says that Murray “does not come close” to showing that the “BA is the work of the devil.” If an alternative system of certification testing made sense, Carey argues, we would expect to see it already, but we don’t because “employers value the bachelor’s degree.” The flexibility of the American system, which allows students to get a good general education without committing to narrow vocational training, is one of its strengths. And so many drop out of college, Cary maintains, not because they are unprepared or unable to benefit, but because the academic environment and teaching are often discouragingly low. “The bachelor’s degree represents the best of American opportunity,” Carey writes. “We need to make it better, not tear it down.”