Academia is responsible for the devalued degree

You’ve probably heard the phrase “bad money drives out good”. That’s Gresham’s Law expressed in its colloquial form.

If you want to know one of the big reasons six, seven or more years in higher education (with the resulting costs or debts) doesn’t guarantee you a job; why the few position advertisements you see all demand other credentials on top of degrees; and why, if your résumé doesn’t show that you’re constantly taking new programs and acquiring new credentials, it gets binned on arrival, just think about Gresham’s Law for a moment. If the “money” is good (your degree is worth something) it doesn’t need endless add-ons and you don’t need endless new degrees on top of your old one. If it’s debased in some way, on the other hand, “more” will be better (think of it as just another form of inflation at work).

Now take a look at what Karl Denniger posted this morning, in “That College Degree? It’s Worthless.

Before all those of you who have your credentials from a Canadian, British, Australian, French, etc. university start snickering at the “perfidious effects of making the football and basketball coach the highest-paid person on campus” that’s so prevalent in the United States, and patting yourselves on the back for having gone to a place that “put the academics first”, hold on. Debasement and the graduation of students who should never have been allowed to pass isn’t just found around the athletic scholarship community.

Any school that debases grades — or simplifies course materials to ensure a higher pass rate — or reduces the amount and types of work required — or poses multiple-choice tests as “examination” without other means of testing what’s been learnt — is engaged in the same game as passing through the point guard or linebacker who can’t read, can’t write, can’t do much of anything, really, other than play the game.

That kind of “bad” degree has been driving out the quality ones for a long time now.

First of all, the dumbing-down of the public school system has meant that much of the first two years of a bachelor’s degree now is taken up with teaching things that used to be part of the high school curriculum, back when many people went to work on the strength of less than a high school graduation. Staying in the university-bound stream say, sixty years ago, meant you were doing what is now second-year calculus and algebra in your Grade 12 math class — the same for the hard sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities — because by the start of Grade 11 everyone else had peeled off, into a different work-bound program, or left school and taken employment.

(My father built his entire career on a Grade 10, Business and Commerce stream education, rising to high management in a major corporation. On the way through his employed life, he also invented a solution to an on-going problem that gained a patent — and not one of the phony, lawyer-driven ones like “one-click ordering” that pervade the patent system today.)

As an undergraduate in the 1980s, my papers came back to me dripping with red ink. Every misuse of the English language was picked up and criticized. Class averages ran in the C to C+ range — Bs really were “exceeds expectations”, and the As you received reflected “outstanding” work.

I’ve been a university professor in three different faculties at two different universities in the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, all teaching Master’s level courses. Had I marked as I had been marked (and since, in my elementary school years, I was marked on a scale where 70% was the pass-fail point, and therefore was used to a demanding system) there would have been a riot in the streets. Every time I’ve taught, there’s been a line of whinging students at the Dean’s door complaining about having to be evaluated by oral examination, by written examination, and by presentation in a class setting with no multiple-choice in sight. Every time there’s been complaints about the red ink correcting their language (even though they, unlike me, didn’t lose marks for it). Anyone getting less than an A- moaned because I “wasn’t being fair”.

Every time, as well, the Dean would force me to “redo” my marks, to keep the institution’s “A-level reputation” intact.

You pass out students who don’t deserve bare Cs with As and you devalue your degree. It’s as simple as that.

Gone are the days when simply seeing Cambridge, Oxford, Toronto, McGill, Harvard, Yale, etc. on someone’s résumé meant you didn’t have to think about whether or not they were competent. The Ivy League and the Canadian schools have long ago gone down the same “can’t fail anyone, everyone’s ego is too fragile not to be classed as really exceeding expectations or being outstanding in some way” trap the public schools went into.

Take a look at business communication today. Riddled with errors. Unable to express coherent thoughts. Or business numeracy: missing in action (people who can’t figure change without a computer to tell them precisely what to pull out build spreadsheets which we all just use and treat as gospel). Or logic in decision making. I see a fair number of strategic plans that have contradictions on the same page — often in the same table or paragraph — and no one bats an eye.

No wonder employers now demand very specific additions to your degrees. After all, credentials like the Securities course (CSC), HR Professional program (CHRP), or Project Management credential (PMP) don’t come with the residual “odour of success” that a name-brand university offers. They have to be effective at transferring skills, or they go nowhere in the market (like the ISP that the Canadian Information Processing Society tries, year after year, to foist as the “mark” of an IT professional).

The on-going addition of more and more letters after your name, in turn, is driven because all that “effective skilling” comes at a price: it’s not education (giving you abilities for a lifetime) but training (giving you specifics that expire as the world changes). That the typical method of job evaluation to set pay grades used in most organizations is driven by educational qualifications — and because managers’ pay bands go up if the staff under them are raised — the quest for pay increases has led to the specification of increased qualifications, one piled on another.

Your responsibility is to ensure that you get value for money in your education. That means, first and foremost, that you get one. A paper dripping with red ink and an honest “C” will teach you far more about communicating effectively than any degree program in “communications” will. Find the toughest old-school types, and learn from them.

Then recognize that in today’s world your institution of higher learning is probably debasing your degree anyway. But if you’ve really learned (as opposed to just passing through) you’ll be prepared for what life throws at you.

With 3 out of 4 white Americans (just about 4 out of 4 blacks and Hispanics) now expected to experience at least one period of significant unemployment and poverty in their lifetime, you had better have gotten something permanent out of it, eh?


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