Why Four Years?

Saturday, June 14th, 2014

Imagine that you have been made a member of a task force to design America’s post-secondary education system from scratch, Charles Murray suggests, and one of your colleagues submits this proposal:

First, we will set up a single goal to represent educational success, which will take four years to achieve no matter what is being taught. We will attach an economic reward to it that often has nothing to do with what has been learned. We will urge large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability to try to achieve the goal, wait until they have spent a lot of time and money, and then deny it to them. We will stigmatize everyone who doesn’t meet the goal. We will call the goal a BA.

Four years is ridiculous for most students studying for most occupations, Murray says:

Assuming a semester system with four courses per semester, four years of class work means thirty-two semester-long courses. The occupations that require thirty-two courses are exceedingly rare. In fact, I can’t think of a single example. Even medical school and Ph.D.s don’t require four years of course work. For the student who wants to become a good hotel manager, software designer, accountant, hospital administrator, farmer, high-school teacher, social worker, journalist, optometrist, interior designer, or football coach, the classes needed for the academic basis for competence take a year or two. Actually becoming good at one’s job usually takes longer than that, but competence in any profession is mostly acquired on the job. The two-year community college and online courses offer more flexible options than the four-year college for tailoring academic course work to the real needs of students.

The BA does confer a wage premium — for no good reason:

First, consider professions in which the material learned in college is useful for job performance, such as engineering, the sciences, and business majors. Take the specific case of accounting. It is possible to get a BA (I use BA as a generic term embracing the BS) in accounting. There is also the CPA exam required to become a Certified Public Accountant. The CPA test is thorough (four sections, timed, totaling fourteen hours). To achieve a passing score indicates authentic competence (the pass rate is below 50 percent for all four tests). Actual scores are reported in addition to pass/fail, so that employers can assess where the applicant falls in the distribution of accounting capability. If I am an employer of accountants and am given the choice between an applicant with a mediocre CPA score but a BA in accounting and another who studied accounting on-line, has no degree, but does have a terrific CPA score, explain to me why should I be more attracted to the applicant with the BA.

The merits of the CPA exam apply to any college major for which the BA is now used as a job qualification. To name just some of them: journalism, criminal justice, social work, public administration, and the many separate majors under the headings of business, computer science, engineering, engineering technology, and education. Such majors accounted for almost two-thirds of bachelor’s degrees conferred in 2005. In every one of those cases, a good certification test would tell employers more about the applicant’s skills than the BA does.

Now consider job applicants for whom the material learned in college is, to put it charitably, only indirectly related to job performance. I am referring to people like me (BA in Russian history), and BAs in political science, sociology, English lit, the fine arts, and philosophy, not to mention the flakier majors (e.g., gender studies). For people like us, presenting a BA to employers amounts to presenting them with a coarse indicator of our intelligence and perseverance. If we have gone to an elite college, it is mostly an indicator of what terrific students we were in high school (getting into Harvard and Duke is really tough, but getting through Harvard and Duke for students not in math or science is really easy).

Yes, the wage premium for college is associated with these majors as well, but please don’t tell me it’s because employers think college augmented our human capital. Employers are not stupid. They know that college might have augmented our human capital. Occasionally, college does teach students to become more rigorous thinkers and writers, and those are useful assets to take into a job. But employers also know that it would be foolish to assume that the typical college graduate has sought out the most demanding teachers and slaved over the syntax and logic of his term papers. The much more certain implication of the BA is that its possessors have a certain amount of raw intellectual ability that the employer may be able to exploit after the proper job training.


  1. Yancy says:

    University was never meant for job training, but for learning.

  2. Isegoria says:

    University was never meant for most people, either.

  3. Magus Janus says:

    Bryan Caplan’s signaling model of education talks about this. We are basically at a ridiculously inefficient coordination point, largely due to government subsidies, interventions, and regulations. And now, due to public choice problems, we are stuck here likely for the long haul.

  4. If you are fluent in the language along with that Russian BA, I’d hire you in a second.

    Gender or lass studies, you had a four year pity party.

  5. Bob Sykes says:

    The BA premium exists because employers use it as a proxy for IQ and work ethic.

    As to universities being places of learning rather than training, the one area where students are guaranteed neither to learn nor be trained is the BA, especially BAs in the humanities, the great fraud of the modern university.

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