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?