Paying for college education is one of the biggest financial worries facing middle class and working families. Fancy liberal arts schools that let your kids live in essentially unsupervised coed dorms while majoring in such helpful subjects as deconstructionist literary theory and Why America Sucks now cost north of $40,000 per year, and even less-prestigious schools that teach more useful subjects can cost as much per year as a round-the-world cruise. Some kids come out burdened with insane levels of debt; others are frozen out of the market.
There is no reason the government should try to prevent American families who value the traditional college experience from paying hundreds of thousands of dollars, but perhaps it could offer an alternative: a federally recognized national baccalaureate (or 'national bac') degree that students could earn by demonstrating competence and knowledge.
With input from employers, the Department of Education could develop standards in fields like English, the sciences, information technology, mathematics, and so on. Students would get certificates when they passed an exam in a given subject. These certificates could be used, like the Advanced Placement tests of the College Board, to reduce the number of courses students would need to graduate from a traditional college. And colleges that accepted federal funds could be required to award credits for them.
But the certificates would be good for something else as well. With enough certificates in the right subjects, students could get a national bac without going to college. Government agencies would accept the bac as the equivalent of a conventional bachelor's degree; graduate schools and any organization receiving federal funds would also be required to accept it.
Subject exams calibrated to a national standard would give employers something they do not now have: assurance that a student has achieved a certain level of knowledge and skill. It is the easiest thing in the world today to find English majors with BA degrees from accredited colleges who cannot write a standard business letter. If national bac holders could in fact perform this and other specific tasks that employers want their new hires to perform, it is likely that increasing numbers of employers would demand the bac in addition to a college degree. Students who attended traditional colleges would increasingly need to pass these exams to obtain the full benefits of their degree.
For students from modest or low-income homes, as well as for part-time students trying to earn degrees while they work full time jobs or raise families, the standards would offer a cheaper, more efficient way to focus their education. Students could take prep courses that focused on the skills they actually needed to do the jobs they sought. Parents could teach their kids at home. Schools and institutes could offer focused programs. Public records could show how well students performed on the exams, offering students and parents far more accountability and information than they now get.
Such programs would be both cheaper and more flexible than conventional college degree programs. The contemporary American college is solidly grounded in the tradition of the medieval guilds. These guilds deliberately limited competition to keep fees high. In the best of cases, guild regulation also protected consumers by imposing quality and fairness standards on guild members. Few observers of American education today would argue with straight faces that the quality of undergraduate education is a major concern of contemporary guilds like the American Association of University Professors. Colleges today provide no real accounting to students, parents, or anybody else about the quality of the education they provide. No other market forces consumers to make choices on so little information.
One consequence of this poorly functioning market is to grossly exaggerate the value of "prestige" degrees. Especially these days, a lot of kids work very hard in Ivy League colleges, but others still major in booze and other diversions. Meanwhile, there are plenty of kids studying at, say, Regular State University, where they work very hard at demanding courses under tough professors. A national bac exam would allow these kids to compete on a level playing field against the Harvard and Yale grads; employers could look at the scores and see for themselves which kids knew more.
Less unearned privilege for Harvard, more opportunity for Regular State. That, once again, is what the ice cream truck brings.
By setting open standards for the national bac, and by allowing anybody to offer the service of preparing students to take the exams, Congress could break the guilds' monopoly on education. A century ago higher education was still a luxury, and it scarcely mattered that it was offered only by arcane guilds in a system that took shape in the Middle Ages. But today many people of very modest means need a BA-equivalent degree to succeed in the workplace.
The power of the guilds in the goods-producing industries had to be broken before the factory system could provide the cheaper goods of the industrial revolution. The service and information revolutions require the breakup of the knowledge guilds: The professoriat is a good place to start.
The Ice Cream Party and the Spinach Party
BY Walter Russell Mead
February 6, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 20
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
proposal for a national baccalaureate
Offhand, I like this idea -- what do you think?