imageThe hard part about reading anything Charles Murray writes is that the obvious subtext of much of it is "let's shut out the darkies". The easy part is that he's otherwise an idiot.

Today's missive is about the need to do away with the entire undergraduate system and replace it with certification exams for every field imaginable. Seriously.

Outside a handful of majors -- engineering and some of the sciences -- a bachelor's degree tells an employer nothing except that the applicant has a certain amount of intellectual ability and perseverance. Even a degree in a vocational major like business administration can mean anything from a solid base of knowledge to four years of barely remembered gut courses.

If only there were ways of screening individual applicants, like through some sort of "interview" process. And perhaps some sort of, I don't know, transcript of their academic record, and perhaps letters from instructors recommending their skills and abilities. Naw, that's ridiculously complicated. Better to introduce a comprehensive set of standardized tests requiring for-profit instructors testing in a number of fields that don't really have the ability to boil down to a Scantron sheet. That's the ticket.

The solution is not better degrees, but no degrees. Young people entering the job market should have a known, trusted measure of their qualifications they can carry into job interviews. That measure should express what they know, not where they learned it or how long it took them. They need a certification, not a degree.

The model is the CPA exam that qualifies certified public accountants. The same test is used nationwide. It is thorough -- four sections, timed, totaling 14 hours. A passing score indicates authentic competence (the pass rate is below 50%). Actual scores are reported in addition to pass/fail, so that employers can assess where the applicant falls in the distribution of accounting competence. You may have learned accounting at an anonymous online university, but your CPA score gives you a way to show employers you're a stronger applicant than someone from an Ivy League school.

I had a whole thing worked out about how this is classist and racist and discriminatory and blah blah blah, but instead I'll just note that virtually every board of accountancy in the country requires a bachelor's degree in order to sit for the CPA exam. Murray's system, other than being entirely ignorant of how its model works, has one other nice feature that would be considered a bug in anyone else's book: an education economy based on certification exams without undergraduate degrees would almost entirely be based on Kaplan-style private courses costing thousands of dollars without benefit of loans, grants or scholarships and shutting out potentially millions of (lower income and minority) applicants. Bonus! You also have to wonder how you test for chemistry proficiency among people who haven't set foot in a lab since high school, or for computer science proficiency among someone working off of an old Dell laptop who learned a series of unsustainable and nonstandard shortcuts. Oh...wait.

You don't.

But that's irrelevant to the larger issue. Under a certification system, four years is not required, residence is not required, expensive tuitions are not required, and a degree is not required.

Except when they are. Like in your model system.

Equal educational opportunity means, among other things, creating a society in which it's what you know that makes the difference.

But not, oddly enough, equal opportunity for receiving education.

I'm a trained LSAT tutor, and one of the hardest things about doing it (and something that a surprising number of law students don't think about) is how much application and admission to law school is based on the resources available to you before you ever begin the testing process. A thousand-plus dollars for courses plus a few hundred dollars for books plus the hours and hours necessary, often in the middle of an adult life involving a job and other obligations, to properly prepare are not things that every applicant has. The solution to the problem isn't doing away with the LSAT (as imperfect as it is, it is a useful tool for gauging the fitness of applicants), it's increasing access to the required pregraduate education in order to ensure that a wider and wider variety of people have the means and the information necessary in order to be more prepared for law school.

Or, fuck it, let's just sell off the entire system of public undergraduate education to Kaplan and go blow the proceeds on the giantest keg ever.