Would degrees by examination revitalize university education?

Larry Sanger

A 14-year-old essay by Prof. Paul Trout inspired some random but related thoughts on university education:

• Dumbing down college education, by grade inflation and lowering standards, can’t continue forever.  The nature of education itself demands limits.  At some point, a college degree will inevitably become meaningless, as many have said, and employers will need something with more objective value.  We might already be at that point.

• As I’ve said before, education is one of the last industries to be truly, deeply affected by the Internet revolution.  The Internet tends to decentralize things and place matters in the hands of individuals–features I support.  The way to do this is simply to build a movement toward awarding degrees by examination.  (Trout mentions this.  I have too, many times in the past.)

• This means that students, to earn their degrees, would not have any course requirements.  Only exam requirements.  And exams should be administered and graded by bodies independent of any course-offering group.  Basically, as a former college instructor, as a former student and father of future students, and as someone stuck in a society overburdened with degreed people who don’t necessarily know their stuff, I want a system of higher education that is bullshit-free.  I want the value of degrees to be both substantive and stable.

• Of course, universities might look askance at such programs (though they do exist).  But employers will not, especially if such programs are expanded.  Speaking as someone who has occasionally done hiring, I personally do have my doubts about the intellectual attainments of people regardless of their degrees.  I know I can’t be alone.  Society in general needs degrees to mean something.  Well, then, let’s expand the movement toward degrees by examination and portfolio review.

• If degrees by exam were to become widespread enough, I suspect they would cast doubt on the value of traditional degrees–and universities would start instituting serious exit exams.

• What should be especially appealing to ed techies about this idea is that it frees up the whole system to reinvent itself as a support network for students taking exams.  Courses and universities might continue–but rebooted.  In addition, a plethora of online and informal offerings might bloom.

• If I wanted to work on this problem, I would work not toward exit exams from universities, but toward nation-wide testing services.

• My guess is that someone could redo Excelsior College and attract serious venture capital for it.  (Wouldn’t surprise me if this were already happening.)

• Students who hated studying wouldn’t have to study–unless they wanted a degree.  Then they would have a real incentive to study, go to class (or other method of exam prep), and demand rigor.

• I remember the sort of students described by Trout, who were furious at any rigorous requirements, bored by everything, and had a pathetic sense of entitlement.

• I don’t fault college-age students for thinking that university education is overpriced.  I fault them for thinking (if they do) that it is a waste of time, if they study hard.  Of course, they can make it a waste of time by taking easy courses and/or not studying.

• I say, let the students escape their “boring” classes.  Then let them just try to earn a degree in a revitalized system that has fewer economic incentives to “dumb down” the requirements for a college degree.  Frankly, I wonder how many recent college grads would actually pass an examination system and thereby prove that they deserve their degrees.  Pretty far south of 50%, I’d hazard, supposing the exams were well designed, administered, and graded.

• To an extent, then, I support something like a system of educational “badges.” (But not all versions.)

• Perhaps such a system should be used for high school diplomas.  Why not a national system of examinations that allows students to establish just how much they know and what their skills are?  Then we can dispense with the meaningless diplomas that are basically certificates of attendance.  One of the most effective ways of real K-12 educational reform would be that students don’t get a degree until they have passed an exam (again, not just objective, but also written and oral, and perhaps even practical as well).

• I might not mind if the government established that such a diploma system must be used by homeschoolers as well, if they want to claim to have a high school diploma.  The homeschoolers have to pass the same exams to get their diplomas.

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