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College crush

"College crush" Continued...

Issue: "The Obama era," Feb. 14, 2009

Q: Are there people now who get CPAs without going to college?

A lot of places insist that you have a B.A. before you take the exam. But the exam exists, and an employer wouldn't particularly care if there's not a B.A., if there's a really high score. It gives a way for a kid who's learned accounting online to compete with the kid who learned accounting at the University of Virginia, or wherever. Because if he has a high score and the kid from the University of Virginia has a low score, that employer is no longer going to be all that worried about the degree.

Q: How does the revolution begin?

Here's a scenario for you: Suppose that you take the information technology industry-let's start with Microsoft. The educational testing service decides that it's going to get into the certification business-it already is, actually-and create the gold-standard test for certification in computer programming. It develops a test which Microsoft agrees really is predictive: If a kid gets a high score on that, he is a crackerjack programmer. It's very easy to imagine Microsoft, which has always openly gone after talent rather than credentials, starting with Bill Gates, saying, "From now on, we are going to require of our programming applicants that they take this certification test. We don't really care about the B.A." If just Microsoft did it, everybody in the industry would do it. You'd already have a tipping point there. Certifications already exist for all sorts of things, but once you get the gold standard, where all employers know that this certification test is predictive of real performance by the employees, all the market forces that I talked about earlier would be in to that. Online is going to be delighted to have certification, because it can promise to train students to get good scores on certification tests.

Q: Now college for everybody is largely seen as a civil-rights issue: If you tell some kids they shouldn't go to college, maybe you're keeping down black kids. Can we flip this? The requirement that you can only take a CPA exam if you have a B.A.: Could eliminating that requirement become a civil-rights issue?

Yeah. I hadn't thought of that, but I think it's very persuasive. It would be real easy to write some powerful op-eds saying, there's this black youngster who took online courses and got a great score, and he can't get his foot in the door because they insist he have a B.A.-it would be great to have that kind of a story. That cuts to the core when you put it in terms of this slogan: "Kids need something to show what they know, not where they learned it, how long it took them, or who they know." Get rid of the halo effect that goes with attending a well-known college.

Q: The ACLU in 1925 went out to recruit a person to take on the Tennessee anti-evolution statute . . .

Get the Institute for Justice to do it. That'd be great. This is a whole new strategy.

Q: It'd be interesting.

It'd be beautiful.

Q: The interest groups that oppose this are . . .

Well, the colleges.

Q: Except the elite colleges, right, because they would still be in business?

The elite colleges are going to be in business no matter what. But the system I'm envisioning would look very much like the system now: We'd still have all the college campuses open, we'd still have kids going to universities to study accounting. The difference is that the ones who are studying accounting and know that's what they want to do might be there for two years or two and a half years, not four years. They'd be there until they learned what they wanted to know. There'd be other kids who stay four years, maybe because college is fun if your parents are paying for it. Lots of kids will still want to get four years of a college education. What you will have done is taken off this straitjacket which says, "You've got to be four years in residence at this expensive institution to get a piece of paper."

Q: Some might portray this as going against our democratic ethos, but it could also be portrayed as powerfully egalitarian: a Lincoln learning law by reading by the light of the fire.

Factually, the whole notion of certification actually could be applied to the traditional academic disciplines. If somebody has a degree in English Lit from a no-name school, I have no idea whether that person has even read George Eliot. You can get a degree in English Lit reading nothing but crap from the 20th century. Suppose you had certification tests in English Literature, in Russian History, in Greek Philosophy. They would be tests whereby, if I were running admissions for a law school, I would know a lot more about whether my applicants had gotten a broad liberal education if I had a set of four or five certification tests rather than rely on the B.A.


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