An FBI special agent, a corrections officer and a postal program analyst have few duties in common, but their jobs have the same qualification: a four-year college degree.
Jailers and gun-toting, badge-flashing federal agents don't need a bachelor's in criminal justice, however. Any old degree will do. And the program analyst and audit evaluator job at the U.S. Postal Service Office of the Inspector General requires a bachelor's even though an employment ad describes the position as "entry-level."
Thanks to Ivanka Trump, college for college's sake is falling out of favor. The first daughter's American Workforce Policy Advisory Board suggested that hiring managers widen their search to include workers without the sheepskin.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order late last month directing federal agencies to review job descriptions and prioritize skills over college completion. That gives veterans, low-income workers and minorities the opportunity to demonstrate the value of their unique life experience.
A basic BA degree — a Bachelor's in Anything, whether it carries the arts or sciences designation — has long been the white-collar workforce's preferred minimum qualification. Guidance counselors tell high school seniors on uncertain career paths that they're better off getting a degree in "underwater basket weaving" than skipping college.
Professional degrees in licensed and regulated occupations such as physician, attorney, teacher and engineer aren't the problem. Hundreds of office jobs require degrees even though there's no relevant major or course of study for them. Is that framed diploma just an oversize membership card for the middle class?
Many positions are advertised as requiring degrees that a majority of current employees in those posts haven't attained, Harvard Business School professors revealed in a 2017 report on degree inflation.
"This phenomenon hampers companies from finding the talent they need to grow and prosper and hinders Americans from accessing jobs that provide the basis for a decent standard of living," principal authors Joseph B. Fuller and Manjari Raman wrote in the executive summary.
How did a four-year degree become the standard employment credential in the first place? College education was increasingly used as a proxy for intelligence after a 1971 Supreme Court ruling stopped companies from giving IQ and general aptitude tests to their job candidates.
In Griggs v. Duke Power Co., a unanimous court established that pre-employment exams must be "reasonably related" to the jobs for which they're used if those tests place minority applicants at a disadvantage. SAT-style analogies that gauge a test taker's vocabulary were too far afield from repairing downed power lines.
The landmark Griggs case reduced racial discrimination, but the degree requirements that followed may constitute class discrimination. Average four-year college costs range from roughly $40,000 for in-state public school students to $125,000-plus for private college students.
Americans owe a staggering $1.56 trillion in student loans. Taking on six-figure debt for a liberal arts degree may be a poor trade-off compared to community college, trade school or the military, and the human resources managers who think they're selecting for smarts could just as easily be screening candidates for risk tolerance.
Universities stem from a medieval tradition of studying the arts and sciences. European aristocrats attended to learn a common canon of literature and philosophy they could discuss in high society. Young workers who needed job skills became apprentices, not college students.
At its purest, the modern academy is a place where scholars gather to seek truth and puzzle out solutions to society's problems through robust research, debate and peer review. Some students embody those high-minded ideals, but for many others, college is a credentialing assembly line. Students are customers, and the degree they earn is merely an overpriced product they're buying on credit.
Only a third of American workers have a bachelor's degree or higher. The remaining two-thirds have an eclectic blend of experience that might be equally valuable. The School of Hard Knocks doesn't confer diplomas, but knowledge isn't always synonymous with formal education.
As Trump's experiment in the federal workforce proves successful, the private sector may follow suit. That would place the American dream of a fulfilling, good-paying job within reach for millions who didn't have the chance to spend four years in the campus bubble.
Corey Friedman is an opinion journalist who explores solutions to political conflicts from an independent perspective. Follow him on Twitter @coreywrites. To find out more about Corey Friedman and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.
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