Would degrees by examination revitalize university education?

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.





Please do dive in (politely). I want your reactions!

4 responses to “Would degrees by examination revitalize university education?”

  1. GPC

    In most countries, you can’t even enter a degree program without earning a certain number of points on a graduation exam. You have to prove beforehand that you have the ability to actually complete the program. When taxpayers are partly funding someone’s education, it is only right that they should prove in advance that they are capable of completing a degree and not waste other people’s hard-earned money.

    You bring up something that I have often wondered about. High school diplomas have become worthless because employers have no faith in them. I used to interview college graduates who should never have been given high school diplomas. What happens when employers lose faith in college degrees? Will everyone who wants a decent job need a Masters? And what does that cost? At some point, diplomas and degrees have to have meaning.

  2. Paul Wormer

    Dr. Sanger, you may be surprised to hear that the system you propagate has existed. Before WW II students at Dutch universities took one big examination after three years (candidate’s examination) and another one after two years (doctoral). There were no intermediate exams, or obligation to go to class. I think, but I am not sure, that German universities had the same system.

    Politics made an end to it, because about 30% of the students did not finish with a degree. When I went to university (in the sixties) we took about five or six subjects per year with one final exam per subject. The dropout percentage was still 30%. Now we have in Holland the American system with many quizzes per subject followed by a final. Still 30% of the students don’t make it to a degree; to great chagrin of our government who blame the teachers–not the students (many of whom have the attitude described by Paul Trout).

    Political pressure is great to lower standards and to give a degree to everybody. Politicians like to compare student dropout with waste in industrial processes. They talk about increasing efficiency, meaning that the ratio: number-of-degrees-granted/taxpayer-money-spent-on-universities must be increased, or, briefly, that the cost price of a diploma must be lowered.

  3. […] 1. A tutorial system, independent of any university, managed via a neutral online database; and an expanded system of degrees by examination. […]

  4. JoAnne

    In Germany, you do have to pass content exams to get your Abitur (secondary/high school) diploma. The system varies on a state (Bundesland) level, with some states requiring all students to pass a statewide exam, others only on a district or school level. My state was considered one of the two strictest, which had the added advantage that my GPA (into which was factored the examinations) was given a “bonus” of a few percentage points. Other states didn’t fare as well: their students received a “malus.” The German university application system thus favored students who did well in the more strict/difficult states. (Imagine a student getting a 3.8 on the American system, with a .2 bonus bringing him to 4.0 … meanwhile, a student who got the highest possible score given a “malus” of .1 would be 3.9, and thus fare less well in competition with the other student, who had a lower intitial grade.)

    In my state, we had to take exams in our two “Leistungskurse” (equivalent to majors), as well as German, English, and Math. One of my “majors” was English, so I selected another subject, namely History. I understand that things have changed somewhat since then, but of the 14 courses I took, I only had state examinations in five: English (written and oral), German (written and oral), Mathematics (written and oral/practical), History (written and oral) and Music (written, oral, AND practical (two instruments)).

    Whew. It makes me dizzy just thinking about it. I heard from my American friends about senior year shenanigans and “senioritis” after they’d already been admitted to colleges. Seemed odd to me, given that the final months of our final (13th) year were the hardest of all.

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