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The college degree racket

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By ART CHANCE
SENIOR CONTRIBUTOR

In the 1960s and ’70s, bookstores had shelves of books about how to study for and pass various qualification exams for government jobs and even some private sector jobs.

Last year’s homecoming queen couldn’t (usually) just use her looks and name to get a job; she had to prove she could type 50 words per minute. Most jobs had some sort of qualifying criteria and testing to make sure the candidate could meet that criteria. That all ended in the early 1970s.

In 1971 the U.S. Supreme Court handed down Griggs v. Duke Power Company. It was a South Carolina case, and racial discrimination in employment was simply a fact in the South. It was all but impossible for a black person, especially a black man, to get any but the most menial job.

Art Chance

As late as the early 1980s, when I last spent any time there, if you hired a white carpenter he’d tell you his rate was, say, $20 an hour. That $20 included his black laborer who did all the lifting, handing, and holding; nobody asked what the laborer was getting paid.

Willie Griggs sued Duke Power Company, a major electric utility, alleging that its job qualification requirements did not have “business utility” in terms of evaluating the applicant’s skills and that they had a disparate impact on black applicants.

The Supreme Court found for Mr. Griggs, setting a standard of business utility for qualifications for hiring or promotion, in itself a reasonable standard and an appropriate reaction to discriminatory hiring and promotion.

If the high school diploma or the college degree isn’t directly related to the applicant’s ability to perform the work, it is an artificial and potentially discriminatory barrier to employment or promotion. In the abstract, Griggs is a pretty good decision though the Supreme Court has pulled away from the disparate impact line, usually requiring a demonstration of an actual intent to discriminate.

But, court decisions often have unintended consequences. Griggs vs. Duke launched a tsunami of discrimination suits against skills tests and minimum job qualifications in the 1970s, many of them successful and accompanied with large judgments. American business and government rapidly abandoned skills testing because it was simply too expensive to defend the business utility of the test.

Business and government responded by setting as long a probationary period as they dared on new hires and promotions and by setting a minimum qualification of “a degree” for many jobs. Especially in government, a degree is often pretty much useless for anything other than maybe making you a good conversationalist. Even the degrees required for professional certifications are as likely to be an artificial barrier as a legitimate requirement to do the job.

Fast forward 40 years:  A degree is worth about 10 years in most government job classifications. If you go to work in government right out of high school or with a GED, you start at the very bottom and if you’re successful it takes you about 10 years to get to the top of the technical level or bottom of the supervisory classes in your classification. If you have a degree in 14th Century French Lesbian Poetry, you start at the top of the technical or bottom of the supervisory classes in your classification.

The colleges figured out this game very quickly and figured out a way to provide “a degree” to people who shouldn’t even be on the grounds crew at a college, and they charged them a lot for the privilege. Today the nation has about $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, most of it from people with a useless degree and who can’t get a job above waiting tables. If you were wondering why so many young people think they’re Socialists, it’s because they’re so poor. today’s GI Bill is “good in-laws.”

To bring this to Alaska and contemporary issues here, the State of Alaska caught the “need a degree” disease too. Were I a lawyer, I’d go recruit some young men with high school diplomas who were denied a job or promotion with the State and sue the State for the “a degree” minimum qualifications it has on so many jobs for which “a degree” has no relevance. A degree from the most prestigious university would not teach you a thing about using the State of Alaska’s proprietary financial management, budgeting, and personnel administration systems; you only learn that by doing it.

Gov. Michael Dunleavy should lead other Republican governors in having his director of Personnel review the class specifications of every job in State government. The last time I looked there were about 1,000 of them. He should eliminate the “a degree” minimum qualification for every job for which the degree wasn’t required for a professional certification.

While on the topic, if the University of Alaska eliminated those “Studies” and “Communications” degrees, the university system would become a heck of a lot smaller, and quickly.

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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Suzanne Downing had careers in business and journalism before serving as the Director of Faith and Community-based Initiatives for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and returning to Alaska to serve as speechwriter for Gov. Sean Parnell. Born on the Oregon coast, she moved to Alaska in 1969.

Latest comments

  • Art, you make a really good point here. Maybe some lawyer will read your column and start a new income stream.

  • Check this out
    College of the Ozarks – Official Site
    http://www.cofo.edu
    College of the Ozarks, founded in 1906, is a no-tuition college. Every full-time student works at a campus job to help defray his or her expenses. Campus Map Campus Tours for Potential Students Directions to C of O … MO 65726. Main Number: 1.800.222.0525

    Why can we not learn to change to improve our future by having a college that produces productive job ready people for the employment opportunities we have h here that are great jobs in the oil, mining, construction medical and trucking?

    What we have now is a failure on every level from the top down. Change is needed…. Money tossed in to a fire is a foolish way to suceed. we can learn from this college system and become great!

  • Good article, Mr. Chance. There is a field of study at UA called, “Northern Studies.” It is cross-referenced both in the History and Political Science Departments. Lots of students have flocked to this area in the past 30 years, but for the life of me, I have no idea what it enables a student to do in the job field. Do you know anything about this?

    • I don’t know the specifics of it, but the “Studies” in the title is usually a dead giveaway for some undemanding course of study that gets a student the piece of paper if they pay and show up from time to time. Getting that piece of paper gets them a job for which the minimum qualification is “a degree.” I’d bet most of them wind up working for government or a Native Corporation.

      When I was in exile from the Executive Branch in the mid-Nineties I attended UAS for six semesters. I took some history and literature classes that interested me and several directed study history classes because I was working on a book and could use UAS professors as editors. I took a full load and worked for the Legislature during the Session plus did a good bit of consulting. Other than my directed study classes which were all independent research and writing, all I ever did was read the material, turn in the work, what little was required, and take the tests. I was on the Chancellor’s List five of the six semesters and on the Dean’s List for the sixth. I got my only “B” in a Logic course taught by an adjunct with a Ph.D. in Philosophy and a J.D. from Gonzaga, and the only conservative I ever met on a university faculty; it was his last semester. His idea of a final for a 200 Level Logic course was giving us about a 1500 word extract from Justice Marshall’s opinion in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, have us distill that 18th Century baroque legalism into standard subject, verb, object form, identify all the syllogisms, and analyze them for logical validity. And when you finished that you had 100 other syllogisms to analyze. It was take home, open book, and we had two weeks but it was a daunting task. Spring finals come at the same time as the end of the Legislature and I was working 20-something hours a day between the Leg and School, so I kinda’ mailed in the final and got the “B” because he graded a strict curve and only seven of us even took the final after we started with over 30. I didn’t quarrel with the grade and he and I were actually pretty good friends. Needless to say they replaced him with some groovy long-haired guy and you could see the Logic class sitting in a circle out on the grass a lot the next semester.

      The “Studies” degrees are an insidious thing. As I said in the piece “a degree” is worth about ten years in government. To get a BA in “Environmental Studies” or some such, you have to take the required General Educational Requirements courses in “readin’, ‘ritin’, and rithmetic’, usually in the first two years, after which you will have what would have been a grade school or middle school education fifty years ago. Then all the rest is really just reading and a little writing, a paper or two at most for each class. And I assure you that college writing is NOT demanding; if it were nobody would pass. When I took “Freshman English” fifty years ago you had to pass it as a freshman or you weren’t in school any more, and losing that 2-S deferment meant your little pink butt was headed for Vietnam. We had to write in fountain pen on unlined paper or type (or have typed) our work. A sentence fragment or a comma splice was an F, a misspelled word a letter grade; you could strike through misspelled words but you wouldn’t dare. If you had any sense you quickly became a Hemmingway fan and wrote in simple, declarative sentences and with short, simple words. I write with compounded complexity today and my grammar and punctuation are sloppy but at one time I survived real grammar Nazis.

      Anyway, so the kid with the degree in Environmental Studies or Labor Studies goes to work for a government and gets hired at or near the top of the technical classifications in their job class series because s/he has a degree. S/he is a lead worker or at least a superior to people who have worked their way up by doing the actual work of the work unit. If s/he can show up fairly regularly and not get cross-threaded with management in five years or less s/he will be supervising a work unit. Within five more years the right bed or the right cocktail party will put that kid in political level management making policy and still having the same stupid ideas s/he had sitting cross-legged on a dorm floor smoking dope in college.

      You’ve seen the news reports about what percentage of HS graduates can’t test into 100 Level English and Math classes. I sent four kids through Alaska public schools. It got worse and worse year by year. Elimination of tracking, mainstreaming special education students, and a general lack of discipline means that the schools teach to the least able and worst behaved. If a kid gets a decent education they got it mostly at home and in spite of the schools. College here and in large measure elsewhere is no different and no better, at least outside the STEM areas. If you want to go to college you can find somebody who’ll pay or you can borrow the money even if it is obvious you shouldn’t go near college or are in a field that will never make a living for you. I don’t know if Post-secondary Education even asks what you’re studying. There are all sorts of scholarships if you’re a member of the right group. There are all sorts of job training programs that will pay for you to go to college. I don’t know if the State is still letting anybody who graduates HS with a 3.0 GPA or higher go to UA free, but all that does is guarantee that everybody will graduate with a 3.0 or higher and most of them won’t be able to test into 100 Level classes.

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