I want an employee who is honest, motivated, loyal, reliable and a self-starter and who gets it.  More and more these employees cannot afford college.  So you’re gonna pass them over because….. – Reeve

by Andrew McAfee  |   7:00 AM February 26, 2013 | Harvard Business Review

If you’re an employer, there are lots of signals about a young
person’s suitability for the job you’re offering. If you’re looking for
someone who can write, do they have a blog, or are they a prolific
Wikipedia editor? For programmers, what are their TopCoder or GitHub scores?
For salespeople, what have they sold before? If you want general
hustle, do they have a track record of entrepreneurship, or at least
holding a series of jobs?

These days, there are also a range of tests you can administer to
prospective employees to see if they’re right for the job. Some of them
are pretty straightforward. Others, like Knack,
seek to test for attributes that might seem unrelated, but have been
shown by prior experience to be associated with good on-the-job
performance.

And there’s been a recent explosion in MOOCs
— massive, open, online courses, many of them free — on a wide range of
subjects. Many of these evaluate their students via a final exam or
other means, and so provide a signal about how well someone mastered the
material. MOOCs are still quite young so
it’s not clear how accurate their evaluations are, but I’m encouraged
by what I’ve seen so far. I’d give serious consideration to a job seeker
who had taken a bunch of MOOCs and done well in all of them.

You’ve noticed by now that ‘a college degree’ is not in this list of
signals. That’s because I think it’s a pretty lousy one, and getting
worse all the time. In fact, I think one of the most productive things
an employer could do, both for themselves and for society at large, is
to stop placing so much emphasis on standard undergraduate and graduate
degrees.

Unfortunately, employers are doing exactly the opposite — they’re
putting more emphasis over time on old-school degrees, not less. As a
recent New York Times story
put it, “The college degree is becoming the new high school diploma:
the new minimum requirement, albeit an expensive one, for getting even
the lowest-level job.” Dental lab techs, chemical equipment tenders, and
medical equipment preparers are all jobs that require a degree at least 50% more often than they used to as recently as 2007.

There are two huge problems with this approach. One is that college
is really expensive, and getting more so all the time. According to
figures compiled by Jared Bernstein,
while median income for two-parent, two-child families went up by 20%
between 1990 and 2008, the cost of a four-year public college education
went up by three times that amount. Total student loan debt is now larger than credit card debt
in the US, and it can’t be discharged even in bankruptcy. As a 2011
graduate working as a receptionist put it in the Times article, “I am
over $100,000 in student loan debt right now… I will probably never
see the end of that bill”

The even bigger problem is that, as I mentioned above, I believe
college degrees are getting less valuable over time even as they’re
getting more expensive. There’s a lot of evidence piling up about what’s
happening with actual learning on campuses these days, and most of it
is not pretty. Fewer students are entering the tougher STEM majors and completing degrees in them, even though graduates in these fields are much in demand. It’s taking students longer to complete their degrees, and dropout rates are rising. The most alarming and depressing stats
I’ve come across are that 45% of college students didn’t seem to learn
much of anything during their first two years, and as many as 36% showed
no improvement after four years. Whatever’s going on with these kids at
these schools, it’s not education.

I think what’s going on in my home industry of higher education at
present is something between a bubble and a scandal. And I don’t think
it’ll change unless and until employers shift, and start valuing signals
other than college degrees. I can’t think of a single good reason not
to start that shift now. Can you?