It’s not that college degrees are useless. For many people, university
is the place where they acquire skills employers value. But
automatically discounting people who earn that same knowledge through a
different path can be counterproductive.

There’s no doubt that college graduates earn more money, on average,
than people who don’t have a degree. And for many years the so-called
“college wage premium” grew. In 1970, according to a recent study by
researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, people with a
bachelor’s degree earned about sixty thousand dollars a year, on
average, and people with a high-school diploma earned about forty-five
thousand dollars. Thirty-five years later, in 2005, the average earnings
of college graduates had risen to more than seventy thousand dollars,
while high-school graduates had seen their earnings fall slightly. (All
these figures are inflation-adjusted.) The fact that the college wage
premium went up at a time when the supply of graduates was expanding
significantly seemed to confirm the Goldin-Katz theory that
technological change was creating an ever-increasing demand for workers
with a lot of human capital.



Cappelli stresses the change in corporate hiring patterns. In the old
days, Fortune 500 companies such as General Motors, Citigroup, and
I.B.M. took on large numbers of college graduates and trained them for a
lifetime at the company. But corporations now invest less in education
and training, and, instead of promoting someone, or finding someone in
the company to fill a specialized role, they tend to hire from outside.
Grooming the next generation of leadership is much less of a concern.
“What employers want from college graduates now is the same thing they
want from applicants who have been out of school for years, and that is
job skills and the ability to contribute now,” Cappelli writes. “That
change is fundamental, and it is the reason that getting a good job out
of college is now such a challenge.”

Finally, in addition to offering more choices and higher salaries, a
college degree offers access to jobs with a clear path towards
professional advancement. A B.S. in biology, for example, could allow a
student to find a job in a lab after graduation, a first step on the
road towards a career in scientific research. The same major could also
be used to apply to medical school, and a career as a doctor. Both of
these avenues would be unavailable without taking the first step of an
undergraduate degree in biology.


It is well established that students who go to élite colleges tend to
earn more than graduates of less selective institutions. But is this
because Harvard and Princeton do a better job of teaching valuable
skills than other places, or because employers believe that they get
more talented students to begin with? An exercise carried out by Lauren
Rivera, of the Kellogg School of Management, at Northwestern, strongly
suggests that it’s the latter. Rivera interviewed more than a hundred
recruiters from investment banks, law firms, and management consulting
firms, and she found that they recruited almost exclusively from the
very top-ranked schools, and simply ignored most other applicants. The
recruiters didn’t pay much attention to things like grades and majors.
“It was not the content of education that elite employers valued but
rather its prestige,” Rivera concluded.

Additionally, employers are willing to pay a premium for highly
qualified applicants. For example, many companies desire employees who
are competent in more than one language and offer higher salaries to
attract them. Even if a job applicant without a college degree has high
standardized test scores, employers may still place a higher value on an
applicant with similar test scores who also possesses credentials from a
well-known university. Because of the extent to which a college degree
is accepted by employers as proof of competence in a given field,
college graduates are not only more likely to receive more job offers,
they can also command higher salaries than applicants who lack college


The “message from the media, from the business community, and even from
many parts of the government has been that a college degree is more
important than ever in order to have a good career,” Peter Cappelli, a
professor of management at Wharton, notes in his informative and
refreshingly skeptical new book, “Will College Pay Off?”
(PublicAffairs). “As a result, families feel even more pressure to send
their kids to college. This is at a time when more families find those
costs to be a serious burden.” During recent decades, tuition and other
charges have risen sharply—many colleges charge more than fifty thousand
dollars a year in tuition and fees. Even if you factor in the expansion
of financial aid, Cappelli reports, “students in the United States pay
about four times more than their peers in countries elsewhere.”

  1. 人们为什么要上大学?

Google acknowledged several years ago that college transcripts and test
scores are worthless predictors of later job performance. (The only
exceptions were very recent graduates, and even then the correlation was
weak.) At IBM, where roughly 15% of new hires in the US don’t have
college degrees, CEO Ginni Rometty has said that vocational courses and
on-the-job experience offer more relevant training for many tech sector
positions than a four-year college degree.

The screening model isn’t very fashionable these days, partly because it
seems perverse to suggest that education doesn’t boost productivity. But
there’s quite a bit of evidence that seems to support Arrow’s theory. In
recent years, more jobs have come to demand a college degree as an entry
requirement, even though the demands of the jobs haven’t changed much.
Some nursing positions are on the list, along with jobs for executive
secretaries, salespeople, and distribution managers. According to one
study, just twenty per cent of executive assistants and insurance-claims
clerks have college degrees but more than forty-five per cent of the job
openings in the field require one. “This suggests that employers may be
relying on a B.A. as a broad recruitment filter that may or may not
correspond to specific capabilities needed to do the job,” the study


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So what purpose does college really serve for students and employers?
Before the human-capital theory became so popular, there was another
view of higher education—as, in part, a filter, or screening device,
that sorted individuals according to their aptitudes and conveyed this
information to businesses and other hiring institutions. By completing a
four-year degree, students could signal to potential employers that they
had a certain level of cognitive competence and could carry out assigned
tasks and work in a group setting. But a college education didn’t
necessarily imbue students with specific work skills that employers
needed, or make them more productive.


In other words: Companies will hire the candidates whose experience and
skills best suit them for the job. Many of those successful applicants
will have university degrees. Some of them will not.

Why is this happening? The short answer is that nobody knows for sure.
One theory is that corporate cost-cutting, having thinned the ranks of
workers on the factory floor and in routine office jobs, is now
targeting supervisors, managers, and other highly educated people.
Another theory is that technological progress, after favoring highly
educated workers for a long time, is now turning on them. With rapid
advances in processing power, data analysis, voice recognition, and
other forms of artificial intelligence, computers can perform tasks that
were previously carried out by college graduates, such as analyzing
trends, translating foreign-language documents, and filing tax returns.
In “The Second Machine Age” (Norton), the M.I.T. professors Erik
Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee sketch a future where computers will
start replacing doctors, lawyers, and many other highly educated
professionals. “As digital labor becomes more pervasive, capable, and
powerful,” they write, “companies will be increasingly unwilling to pay
people wages that they’ll accept, and that will allow them to maintain
the standard of living to which they’ve been accustomed.”

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“Academic qualifications will still be taken into account and indeed
remain an important consideration when assessing candidates as a whole,
but will no longer act as a barrier to getting a foot in the door,”
Maggie Stilwell, Ernst and Young’s managing partner for talent, told
the?Huffington Post?when that company dropped the requirement.

If there is one thing most Americans have been able to agree on over the
years, it is that getting an education, particularly a college
education, is a key to human betterment and prosperity. The consensus
dates back at least to 1636, when the legislature of the Massachusetts
Bay Colony established Harvard College as America’s first institution of
higher learning. It extended through the establishment of “land-grant
colleges” during and after the Civil War, the passage of the G.I. Bill
during the Second World War, the expansion of federal funding for higher
education during the Great Society era, and President Obama’s efforts to
make college more affordable. Already, the cost of higher education has
become a big issue in the 2016 Presidential campaign. Three Democratic
candidates—Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley, and Bernie Sanders—have
offered plans to reform the student-loan program and make college more


Abandoning the four-year degree as a qualification might feel like a
dramatic break from hiring orthodoxy. But in some ways, it’s more
surprising that so many companies still insist upon a degree in the
first place.

These types of studies, and there are lots of them, usually find that
the financial benefits of getting a college degree are much larger than
the financial costs. But Cappelli points out that for parents and
students the average figures may not mean much, because they disguise
enormous differences in outcomes from school to school. He cites a
survey, carried out by PayScale for Businessweek in 2012, that showed
that students who attend M.I.T., Caltech, and Harvey Mudd College enjoy
an annual return of more than ten per cent on their “investment.” But
the survey also found almost two hundred colleges where students, on
average, never fully recouped the costs of their education. “The big
news about the payoff from college should be the incredible variation in
it across colleges,” Cappelli writes. “Looking at the actual return on
the costs of attending college, careful analyses suggest that the payoff
from many college programs—as much as one in four—is actually negative.
Incredibly, the schools seem to add nothing to the market value of the

Before attending college, students have a limited opportunity to
specialize. After obtaining a specific college degree a job applicant
can be competitive for previously unavailable jobs. For instance,
applicants with Computer Science degrees would not only be qualified for
jobs in high-tech companies, they would also be well prepared for any
job with computer skills as a prerequisite. With a larger range of
potential jobs to choose from, degree holders are more likely to find a
job that suits their particular needs and interests.