Saturday, August 8, 2009

Giving them the first degree

So here is the story, about a year ago a group of 10 Washington State Patrol (WSP) troopers were accused of having received college diplomas from questionable institutions (i.e., a degree mill). Troopers, you see, get 2% pay increase for earning a 2 year associates degree and a 4% increase for earning a 4 year bachelors degree (what a coincidence that the percent pay increase matches the number of years in the degree). An investigation last winter indicated that they had received some basic approval from the human resources staff and would, therefore, not be prosecuted for criminal offenses. In just the last couple of days, however, the WSP has recommend firing the 8 individuals remaining on the force. [go here to find a list of articles in Puget Sound media outlets covering the story.]

How did this all come to light? No doubt it was because of their sub-par performance when compared to troopers with legitimate degrees, right? No, of course not. A degree mill in Eastern Washington was busted and it served government employees, so they worked back through the list of employee degrees (ah, the old employee-degree table) and there are your alleged cheaters.

Does that make you upset at the troopers? Not me. The troopers want to earn more money - who doesn't - and the best way to do it is to get a degree. Their employer doesn't really seem to care if it is a legit degree and since there doesn't appear to be a direct relationship between degree and job performance why kill yourself. That is, unless you like school.

What drives me crazy is that their employer, my government, gives out pay increases for things that should eventually lead to better performance, instead of for the performance improvement itself. I mean, if the degree really makes a difference then it should show up in the individual's performance, right? And, if their performance improves without a degree, shouldn't they get a raise too?

It might be useful to ask ourselves what we really want when we make a college degree a requirement for employment (or for a pay raise). I think what we expect is that the degree certifies that a person has gained a set of skills, knowledge, experiences and personal connections that we feel makes for a "better" person. Great, but what if it doesn't? A degree is normally granted based upon the accumulation of credit hours from a disparate set of general studies and program specific classes. I never had an assessment to determined I was a good critical thinker, did you? I am sure, however, that there are those who think my time on the banks of the Mountlake Cut ensure that I am.

Worse still, by requiring a degree in addition to the skills/knowledge/experiences we specifically exclude individuals who can demonstrate they have gained those skills/knowledge/experiences through means that didn't lead to the granting of a degree. It sends the clear and unmistakable message that acquiring a piece of paper that says we know something is more important than knowing something. Why are we surprised that we end up with degree mills, people buying term papers and lying on resumes?

I fear we are creating a college degree bubble that will, like housing and tech stock bubbles before it, burst leaving us worse off, both individually and as a society. Student loan debt is just the first and most obvious sign of trouble ahead. Post-secondary education is an absolutely vital part of our society, but the ascendancy of the degree to near deity status is making the system weaker, not stronger. The challenge is for employers, public and private, to back away from the edge of this cliff.

Postscript: On August 30th James McCusker, the economics columnist for the Everett Herald, wrote a column titled "Focus on skill, not school, for hiring". In it he takes on the "relentless marketing of academic credentials as a product". He suggests that we need to focus on the real requirements of the job and not add unnecessary educational requirements simply to reduce the pool of applicants. The article is right on the mark and well worth the 5 minutes you'll spend reading it.

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