We live under a tyranny, at the head of which sits a king. This tyrant enjoys absolute, unquestioned rule. His is less a reign of political, economic, or spiritual tyranny; it is, rather, a tyranny of stigma and, like any tyranny, has taken so firm a hold over the system that to abolish it seems a task insurmountable. The tyrant of which I write is the BA.
We live in a “credential-ocracy,” a society in which it is less important what you know than it is where you were taught. There was a time when there were those who went to college and those who didn’t. Those who went and made it through earned a credential that would signal to the professional world their value as an employee and their capability to perform beyond those without said credential.
However, in an age in which college attendance is the rule rather than the exception, employers are no longer able to distinguish the strong candidates from the weak by whether or not they have made it through the academy. The rigors of a modern liberal education, as well as the authority once carried by the designation of “college graduate” have been diluted, forcing employers to find a new signal. It is no longer good enough to have graduated from college. Now, to really make a run for the brass ring, one either must attend an elite college or continue his or her education by means of advanced degrees. My question is, simply, why?
Ivy League colleges have garnered their reputation by producing great leaders and thinkers, and they continue to do so. These are, however, the exception in the U.S. higher education system. The vast majority of U.S. colleges and universities produce graduates who are not, in intellectual terms, so far removed one from the other. The BA has taken on a gateway function, serving less as an accomplishment, and more succinctly as a means to an end to a fabled future of wealth and pleasure. Today a BA tells the employer, at most, that: 1.) the candidate was a talented high school student; 2.) that they were able to succeed in the same manner as 30% of U.S. adults; and 3.) they may have some level of raw intellectual talent. Is this credential and the assumptions gleaned therefrom enough upon which to base one’s competency as a future employee? As more and more follow the heavy-trodden paths of higher education, the BA will become less and less an impressive credential.
Charles Murray, educational provocateur extraordinaire, advocates a divorce from the BA and suggests we replace it, when possible, with competency tests, certification tests, and the like. He cites the road to become a Certified Public Accountant. You can take every accounting class under the sun, but if you fail to pass the CPA credentialing test, you will not become a CPA because you failed to adequately demonstrate your competency in this skills-based profession, period. These tests allow employers to determine based on standardized scores which candidate applying for the CPA job in question is the most competent to perform the job satisfactorily. The credentialocracy is now under assault by the forces of merit-based employment.
Of the challenges associated with this sea change in higher education, perhaps the most difficult to combat would be the stigma associated with not possessing a BA. With credentialing and competency tests replacing the BA in many instances, one may encounter someone in the professional world who achieved success through alternative means and think it was ill-gotten because it was not done “in the normal way.” Finally, businesses and universities would have to get on board. They would have to acknowledge that their big money-making engines, the hallowed crowning achievement of an ever more financially profitable undergraduate program – the BA – was no more.
The old king is dead. Long live the king.