kitchen table math, the sequel: proposal for a national baccalaureate

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

proposal for a national baccalaureate

Offhand, I like this idea -- what do you think?
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


Crimson Wife said...

In article a year or two ago in the alumni magazine for the Ivy League business school my DH attended, one recruiter was quotes saying that if her company could recruit off of the school's list of admitted students, she would prefer that to hiring the newly minted MBA's. She felt the entire value of the program (which cost $100k + 2 years' foregone wages) lay in the prescreening.

When my DH was looking for a job, most position decriptions he saw stated MBA or CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst). The CFA requires passing 3 extremely challenging all-day exams (pass rate ~40% on each). He has told me he learned way more about finance in studying for the CFA exams than he did in business school.

Anonymous said...

If the test didn't become watered down and if it could become accepted it would be great for all those kids who did the hard work above and beyond in high school.

Allison said...

The question is who benefits from keeping the test rigorous.

It's funny that he talks about breaking up the guilds. The AMA and the ABA are guilds, and they are organizations that favor rigor in their tests. The AMA and ABA benefit from keeping their own tests rigorous because it limits supply and therefore raises wages, regardless of state licensing for doctors and lawyers.

The academy is different, since it has decided that the undergrad degree being worthless doesn't undermine their own group. They've still got phds and post docs to weed out the candidates and thin their ranks, that's the problem.

So, who would benefit from rigor? College Board does something like it now--it credentials students, in a sense, with its SATs, ACTs, and AP tests. So it has something to lose if the tests become un-rigorous.

But there is zero reason to think that a federal government department is capable of keeping such a test rigorous. These are the people bringing you disparate impact law suits so that police cadets that can't score well the civil service exams have to all be considered anyway so racial disparities aren't present in the population of passers. Just think, disparate impact on these exams would have to be fought in lawsuits, too.

Anonymous said...

"If the test didn't become watered down and if it could become accepted it would be great for all those kids who did the hard work above and beyond in high school."

I might argue that the high school diploma *USED* to be this credential. I suspect that a HS diploma from 100 years ago roughly corresponds to a 4-year degree from a mid-range (say ranked about 1,000 by USNWR) college.

*That* credential failed to hold up. Why would we expect that a new one would? Another way of asking this is: "I can see lots of constituencies in favor of watering down this sort of thing. I don't see many in favor of keeping things rigorous." As a more modern example, think the NY regents exam. It is getting watered down, right?

-Mark Roulo

ChemProf said...

I think you'd need to get some of the societies (I'm thinking of the American Chemical Society and the American Institute of Physics, as a place to start) to write the exams. There is something similar for civil engineers and land surveyors in California, to become an professional CE or land surveyor, you have to pass an exam and become an Engineer in Training (EIT or LSIT). There is no requirement that you have a particular degree to take the exams, and my father basically trained a friend of mine to take the LSIT without ever going to college. But Allison is right, there has to be some external agency that benefits from maintaining high standards. The states or the feds won't do it (and the feds arguably have no business doing so anyway).

Bostonian said...

I do NOT trust the Federal government, certainly including the Department of Education, to define what a baccalaureate degree is.

Why not build on existing exams? To get into graduate school, students need to take the GRE general exam (comparable to the SAT I) and the exam for their subject (for example physics or chemistry). If universities wanted to quantify how much students are learnings, they could require all students to take the GRE general and the relevant subject exam before graduating, and they could
publish average scores by department. The could also create their own departmental exams for seniors. We could see to what extent (if any) Harvard physics majors outperform their peers at UMass Amherst on the physics GRE.

Universities do NOT want to make comparisons easier and prefer to maintain the illusion that they are all doing a great job. They must be, because the ratio of college to high school graduate earnings has risen /s.

I don't think we need more people going to graduate school, but just as state-specific high school exams could be replaced the SAT/ACT
and SAT subject exams, as I suggested in another thread, university grades (which are not comparable across schools and have been inflated considerably) could be augmented by scores on graduate entrance exams.

momof4 said...

I'm with Bostonian on the idea of replacing the (usually ridiculous) state tests with the SAT/SAT II/ACT exams. High school entrance could require a specific score on the SSAT, as many private high schools do, and advancement in ES-MS could require a specific score on the ITBS. Far too many elementary schools are failing to teach serious academics; thereby leaving far too many kids unprepared for middle school, let alone high school work.

It's not likely to happen, however, because the results would be politically unacceptable.

Catherine Johnson said...

There are quite a few states that require all high school grads to take the ACT, aren't there?

Catherine Johnson said...

I certainly agree that the DOE isn't the department I would put in charge of such an undertaking.

Professional and "learned" societies seem like the obvious choice.

Bostonian said...

According to the Wikipedia article on the ACT,

"[S]ome states have used the ACT to assess the performance of schools, and require all high school students to take the ACT, regardless of whether they are college bound. Colorado and Illinois have incorporated the ACT as part of their mandatory testing program since 2001. Michigan has required the ACT since 2007, Kentucky requires all high school juniors to take the ACT and Wyoming requires all high school juniors to take either the ACT or the ACT WorkKeys."

The only state I know of that requires the SAT for high school students is Maine.