Art Chance: History of the value of a college degree



We and the English have developed an elaborate mythology and vocabulary about our schools. My generation refers to our schools as “alma mater,” Latin for “nourishing mother,” the entity that brought us up. “Alumna” means “foster daughter” in Latin. The nourishing mother adopted you and saw you to adulthood. 

I still remember the words of “the alma mater” song of my high school from 60 years ago and get a lump in my throat if I run across an old video of the Georgia “Dixie Redcoat Band” playing “Tara’s Theme,” although these days you’d probably have the FBI at your door if you played that song.

I think it is fair to say that all of that is pretty much gone except in nostalgic memories of aging “Boomers.”  Colleges and universities are not “nourishing mothers” anymore; they’re factories. With unlimited student loans, no entry standards, and “studies” degrees that only require paying and maybe showing up occasionally, a huge percentage of college students shouldn’t be any closer to a college classroom than the grounds crew or custodial closet, but when they showed up occasionally and paid, they got to hear “Pomp and Circumstance.”

You can trace much of this to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1971 decision in Griggs v. Duke Power Company. In 1971, the South was still very segregated. Mr. Griggs was a Black, low-level worker who sought a promotion. The qualifications the company set for the job bore no relation to the skills required for the job, and so Griggs sued. Griggs’ case was clearly meritorious and the Supreme Court found in his favor, and in so doing upset the whole traditional hiring system in the country, and not just in the segregated South.

In 1971 most companies of any size had fairly elaborate screening processes in hiring. It was a world of writing and math tests, typing test, and specific skills tests in specialized areas. Griggs held that a company had to demonstrate the business necessity of any desired skill or qualification. It didn’t take long for the Plaintiffs’ Bar to turn that into a cash cow. It didn’t take many six figure verdicts to cause the employers to almost totally abandon employment testing and detailed, probing interviews weren’t far behind. 

Enter needing “a degree” as a minimum qualification for jobs.

Corporate and government human resources and legal departments scrambled to set the minimum qualifications for all the jobs they dared at “a degree,” no particular degree, just “a degree.”   States with some political or ethical sensitivity to discrimination claims, Alaska among them, kept a lot of jobs open to starting at the bottom and working your way up, but even there soon “a degree” would give you about a five year advantage over the person who had worked their way up and actually knew the work.

The universities jumped on this and invented the “Studies” degrees for people who shouldn’t have been near a college class.    So, the lefty snowflake with a degree in “Environmental Studies” can come right out of school, basically with a middle school education and a lot of indoctrination, and go straight to work at the technical/lower supervisory level of a government’s environmental protection function.   If s/he can show up and more or less do as instructed, s/he will be a section chief; that’s just one warm bed or nice check at a fund raiser from a politically appointed division director.

Once there, it is just making friends with the right candidate for governor, and you’re running the department with your seventh grade education.

So, I applaud the notion of doing away with the “a degree” qualification. Of course, I’ve been advocating it in my writing for the better part of 20 years. Now we can talk about how the Dunleavy administration can screw up even a good idea?

I don’t know which idiot in Law, Administration, or the Governor’s Office wrote the implementing Administrative Order, but that person has no idea how state government works. They give elaborate instructions to Admin to make personnel rule recommendations to the State Personnel Board to carry out this change. The personnel rules and the Personnel Board have nothing to do with carrying out this change.    The director of Personnel and the Classification manager can revise any class specification at their discretion. All it takes is a signature.

Now the geniuses have given the opponents, and there will be many in the bureaucracy, endless opportunities to challenge every action Admin takes. It’s a lot like the same stupidity that took them to the wrong court house over implementing the Janus decision. I’m glad I’m older than most, maybe all, of the Dunleavy Administration; at least I can read.

Nota bene: There is a provision for submitting the state classification plan and revisions thereto to the Legislature for approval but, to the best of my knowledge, that hasn’t been done in 30 years.

Art Chance is a retired Director of Labor Relations for the State of Alaska, formerly of Juneau and now living in Anchorage. He is the author of the book, “Red on Blue, Establishing a Republican Governance,” available at Amazon.

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    • We don’t know that. I’m still wanting to hear what the payloads were. If they were scientific study balloons, why have no scientists claimed them? Why wasn’t the FCC notified of objects in the skies that could impact aircraft flights? Why did they claim it was too cold to dive in Alaska when we have so many divers who actually do so? No, none of it makes sense, which tells me we’re not being told what we should be.

  1. “The universities jumped on this and invented the “Studies” degrees for people who shouldn’t have been near a college class.”
    Do not forget, those degrees generate a LOT of money for the university. A single TA can lecture to a room of 400 “hyphenated-American Studies” majors at $3,000 a credit. Or, you can have an engineering professor run a lab of 15 people with a requirement for space, test equipment, and materials.
    Unless the job requires specialized hands on education, or some other demonstration of education beyond HS level, there is no need for any kind of degree. Medical doctor, lawyer, engineer… etc… need to show some higher education. Government clerk? Not so much.

  2. Being about the same age as Art, I remember a time when a college degree really mattered. It was an accomplishment only about 20% of people made. It was extremely tough. About 50% of the Freshman undergrads didn’t make it to graduation.

    It was a ticket to a successful future for most who managed it.

    It was also unnecessary for most people. It wasn’t a stretch to have a good life off one working man’s salary.

    Then came Griggs. The correct decision which opened the door to the law of unintended consequences. It started the process of devaluating a college degree.

    The fate of college degrees was set with the advent of lotteries to find college educations. To be sure schools got the most of these bucks possible, enrollment standards fell through the college floor. High schools followed by imitating grade inflation to make sure nearly anyone with a pulse could pull a B average. They wanted to ride the easy money train, too.

    End result. A college degree so useless it now requires a masters to be taken seriously.

    The saddest part of all? A large percentage of students who weren’t ready for higher education took the shot, took out loans to cover the difference. The colleges raised the costs well above inflation averages. Result? A bunch of students, disproportionally minority and low income whites ended up with crushed dreams and a debt it will take decades to climb out from under.

  3. I remember working for a certain State of Alaska environmental department back in the early 2000s and we had to rewrite our positions since they were being reclassified from one name to “environmental specialist”. It was told by higher ups to the working stiffs, that if we don’t puff up the requirements, knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) section for the position, our positions would be downgraded in pay scale since anyone could do our job with a HS degree and a few years experience in an environmental field.

    So we spent weeks furiously writing job descriptions justifying our current positions so that we would all look better on paper with our 4-year degrees, certifications, technical courses, etc. After many rewrites our positions were reclassified with the new KSAs. That was to the detriment of folks without a college degree wanting a job with our department or even keep the job they had been doing for years in our department.

    I felt sorry for a close friend that had no college degree working in the department and getting promoted since he was deemed worthy enough to get the promotion. After the reclassification effort, my friend was forced to accept a lower classification or quit his job and accept a downgraded future pay scale to match. My friend had the years of real wolrd experience within the department, but was deemed not worthy or qualified for the “environmental specialist III” position he was promoted to in the past without a 4-year college degree. My friend took it better than I would have and accepted the reduction in classification.

    Fast forward to 2023, I have since retired, but I am glad the pendulum appears to be working the other way to factor in real world work experience in lieu of a college degree for positions with the State of Alaska. We will see what happens with this effort.

  4. As I got older, I noticed in my University Alumni magazine the deaths and retirements of antigovernment and/or druggies I remembered. All, without exception held government jobs. Prior to this, in my ignorance, I believed those working for the government were conservatives. Ignorance was bliss. The enemy within is fully in place…

  5. Alaska no need any more state, city, non
    profit, nor tribal employees with and w/o a degree while private sector is needing people
    who understand responsiblity, sober, and want to work even taking a second job-since inflation is so high.

  6. I became a single mother straight out of high school.

    Noone in my community would hire me for a job that I had capabilities of because of my “reputation”.

    Do not think that an education will win you favor – it is a lie.

    But, an education will give you an option.

    Nothing is easy. When people are good at making your reputation as being “easy”.

    There is an innocence that gets ripped away and degrades a person that starts with their first memories of existence.

    And no matter how you work to overcome those barriers within, people can smell it on you and they do.

    And come and get you.

    And they are really good at it.

    This is the Native Way.

    This is why education is so important.

    Because we need to have an option other than killing ourselves.

    I do not have an Ivy League education.

    I work in an entry level job in Las Vegas and likely will be an entry level employee for the rest of my life, with a Masters Degree.

    But I am not dead.

    I am not getting beat up anymore, literally. And neither are my daughters.

    I am not at the mercy of a community that used me, fired me the day the Washington Post Investigative Reporter left Nome and my usefulness was gone.

    I went back to get my Madters Degree – not to be prestigious – I went back to understand what I did wrong.

    I went back when I was found guilty of fraud- and more importantly after the case was settled with neither party admitting guilt, but two native communities working together to publicize the worst shame of my life in a one-sided story.

    And people e ask me shy there is such high rates of suicide in the Alaska Native community.

    I am here to tell you why.

    It is not the storyline of genocide.

    It is the perpetuation of self-genocide.

    And that right there is the reason for getting an education to escape.

    It is not easy out here. But I am not dead.

    And every day, I am learning how to feel a tad bit better about not being dead yet.

    We need a string to hold onto – and mine has been education. I am a work in progress. At the lowest common denominator of hope.

    But we gotta start somewhere.

  7. Then there are those that got a bachelor’s and a masters and made $3 million dollars in wages from it. They’re giving away a lot of bogus degrees these days and they are pretty much worthless in the workforce. I think it all boils down to the individual, just like it always has.

  8. For once – I’ve gotta say it – I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Chance. So many college degrees issued today are purposeless, and are not worth the (probably loaned) money that was spent to pay for them. There are, of course, esoteric degrees which exist to expand our body of knowledge, but that would not be recognized by the majority of us as having value. And, there’s nothing wrong with spending your own money to educate yourself in whatever subject you desire. But on the whole, many degrees “earned” these days are devoid of value. They neither serve a productive role in society nor benefit the degree holder – except to feed their vanity and self-esteem. And the concomitant expense will be a burden to the holder for decades.

    Being one who entered adult life armed with useful technical degrees, and for which society employed and rewarded me, I wince a little every time some young person tells me about their degree in this or that puff-ball subject, knowing that it will be of little use to them. And this whole situation is exacerbated by for-profit schools who suck up federal school loan dollars, holding out the promise of success to the student, while offering worthless paper in exchange.

    But be careful not to get carried away and disparage the entire higher education system. Many people, indeed probably most, would say that their University education was one of the defining and most rewarding accomplishments of their lives. It’s also the system that develops and sustains the knowledge needed for our modern society to function. A lot of the money spend on worthless college degrees would be far better spent on apprentice training and other skills programs, which will both provide society with a skilled workforce, and provide the recipient with a higher level of satisfaction and well-being.

    • Wow, is this post from the same Whidbey the Dog who we’ve read so many comments from on MRAK in the past? Because it sure doesn’t sound like it! This comment is actually intelligent, well-considered, eloquent and lacking in snark.
      I suspect an imposter Whidbey here, but nevertheless, he is a welcome imposter.

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