Certification would help college grads prove their skills

If you are going to argue that most students at four-year colleges are wasting their time, you have to expect that people are going to call you names. “Consumer advocate” is not one of them.

And yet in his efforts to reshape higher education, that is precisely what Charles Murray is. His idea to substitute certification exams for diplomas could significantly lower the costs of higher education — a welcome idea to parents and students scrambling to put together the money for what has become, for many, a ticket-punching process providing entry to the world of employment.

The certification exam idea is contained in Murray’s new book, “Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality.” He uses the certified public accountant (CPA) exam as an example of an independent certification, and believes that similar exams could cover the skill sets that employers expect of fresh college graduates with bachelor’s degrees.

A certification exam has the consumer cost advantage of testing skills, not how or where you acquired them. A student could pass the exam whether he or she had mastered the subject at Harvard University or Siwash College, on the Internet or at the public library.

When asked in an interview last week about who would benefit if his cost-saving idea was adopted, he couldn’t resist a small laugh. “Do you know any parents trying to send their kids to college?” he said. Of course, we all do. Despite the increase in student debt, parents are very often still the primary source of funds and the primary worriers about how to match their savings to the runaway costs of higher education.

Besides parents, Murray added, “It would be a ­tremendous boost to the large majority of kids trying to support themselves and pay for their education, too.”

In some ways, though, it is employers who would benefit the most. As Murray says, “It is easy to see how employers would provide support for certification. They could be confident that the job applicants they are selecting actually have the skills needed for the job, which is not easy to do with today’s graduates holding their new degrees in their hands.”

We shouldn’t forget that frustrated employers were the ones who provided the support for achievement standards at the high school level. By the 1980s, whatever the true value of a high school diploma might have been, it no longer reflected mastery of basic reading, writing and math skills. Employers were left on their own to figure out who could do the work and who could not.

Their complaints, along with other factors, were eventually transformed into political support for statewide minimum graduation standards, and, in some cases, certification of basic skills mastery. Much the same uncertainty about capabilities and achievement now exists in higher education, but we haven’t yet seen employers getting together to demand that kind of change — at least for bachelor degrees. (Employers do sometimes demand, and obtain, changes in engineering and in master of business administration programs and courses when graduates do not seem equipped for today’s workplace.)

Given the increasing costs of mistakes in hiring, employers are certain to welcome certification exams in certain key workplace skills. And this will offer opportunities to people who cannot afford the other kind of certification: a degree from a four-year college.

It will also open up some opportunities for those who provide education outside the traditional classroom setting.

“Certification will also benefit the online education industry, which has tremendous appeal and is already growing rapidly but knows that online degrees do not have the same prestige as a degree from a brick-and-mortar college,” Murray said.

Certification exams would place online education and four-year institutions on a more equal, more truly competitive footing, at least in teaching the skills where certification tests prevail.

There is an even more important reason to take a serious look at certification tests. From an economics perspective, it is clear that higher education is an industry of increasing average costs. Its expansion combined with these increasing costs to produce an unintended economic consequence — a class structure separating those who can afford a four-year degree from those who cannot.

The expanding student debt should be an alarm bell warning us of this growing problem. It is no wonder that the U.S. News &World Report college ranking now includes categories for least and most student debt for the graduating class.

Certification exams are not a panacea for our economy or our education system, but they would add another element of meritocracy into the mix. Merit and opportunity are the keys to the American dream, a dream we need now more than ever.

James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant.

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