Strong opinions, weakly held

Should we have a college version of the GED?

Matthew Yglesias asks whether we should have a college version of the GED? There could be a test or series of tests you could take that gives you the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree, or even an associates degree to start out. It seems like a logical idea to me — it would give the self-taught an opportunity to obtain needed credentials and provide real competition to regular universities and alternative schools like the University of Phoenix. I really think that everyone who wants a college education should have the opportunity to have one. That said, given all the lectures and course materials available online, the makings of a college education already exist if you have Internet access. What’s lacking is the granting of credentials once you’ve learned the material. It seems logical for someone to grant those credentials. On the other hand, if that happened, I suspect that many universities would pull down the courseware they currently post due to the new competition.


  1. One problem with this plan is that as an employer – I often view college as proof of more than an education. Its a proof that you are responsible, organized, and motivated enough to do the work, learn something, deal with a variety of different people, and so forth. This in my opinion as important as your technical skills or whatever it was you went there to learn, especially if you don’t have any work experience.

    College itself is a test!

  2. That said, given all the lectures and course materials available online, the makings of a college education already exist if you have Internet access. What’s lacking is the granting of credentials once you’ve learned the material.

    I agree with Duane – what’s lacking is the rest of the skill set you develop in college.

    Reading the course materials online is not the same experience as being challenged in class to defend your answer, debating a topic with others in your class, having to take a test with unexpectedly challenging questions, or working on a semester long group project. Reading and understanding the online course materials is only part of that skill building experience.

    I understand there is a need out there for something like what you suggest, but honestly, if I was hiring someone the person with the “college GED” on their resume would probably be at the bottom of the interview pile. Not that that means they wouldn’t be hired, just that I would prioritize them lower. Knowing they passed the “college test” (as Duane says) is an indicator of some important skills.

  3. I don’t think universities will agree upon a mechanism to test into degrees without going through the college process any more than Scientologists will allow potential disciples to test into the QT levels without going through their training, and for largely the same reasons.

    With high school, we haven’t yet given up the fiction that it’s about knowledge. As Duane’s post above clearly shows, universities and the college system have gotten around the realization that, at least at the undergraduate level, they simply work as a high pass filter without actually imparting much knowledge, by positioning themselves as the endurance test necessary to prove yourself capable of enduring the corporate grind. What better way to learn how to stop from calling “bullshit” on marketing presentations than sitting through those required undergrad sociology classes?

    However, my experience as a college dropout I think also shows that by your mid 20s, with or without college, you’ve either proved yourself in your career or not. Yeah, there are times I regret my ludicrous college experience, but what I really regret are not having built those social bonds with the people with whom I share my career; I had to build them a bit later in life.

    I think at this point, the actual useful part of college is as a place to meet other co-collaborators on exciting projects and startups or, if you’re going to take the safe civil service route, a way to up your government pay grade. I think neither of those lend themselves to Scantron grade-able tests.

  4. What degree would this test give? BA/BSc in Undeclared?

  5. Whoops: Typo. That’s “OT” levels of Scientology. I guess the “QT” levels would be a secret Apple thing.

  6. Howard Berkey

    May 16, 2010 at 3:06 am

    In the US there’s already something close to a “college GED” in terms of content. It’s called the Graduate Record Exam.

    I think you could make an argument that someone should be allowed to enter grad school in any program they want to if they can pass the GRE for that program.

    Then again, one of the less effective software job interview techniques that is also unfortunately quite common is to ask candidates questions based on or pulled from the Computer Science GRE. I mean that literally, I have worked at places where people pulled interview Q’s directly from the CS GRE. It’s dumb, but that’s beside the point.

  7. Dan, I’m not sure if you were being sarcastic or not, but I did not mean to imply that college was simply an endurance test. I actually did learn a great deal of useful knowledge in addition to the skills. I suppose how much of these things you obtain also depends somewhat on the university and major.

    You can acquire equivalent knowledge and skills without college (and I work with some great people who never did go to college), I just think it’s a lot harder to do so.

  8. John, nope, I wasn’t being sarcastic. I made a few connections in my few years at college, and did learn some stuff (mostly by working outside the traditional course structure), but as a mechanism for actually learning useful things I found the structure of the university horribly inefficient.

    So I actually don’t think it’s harder to pick up without that, I think if you’re reasonably motivated it’s easier to learn the material outside of college.

    However, In my years since then I’ve come to the conclusion that I was doing it wrong. What I should have done was gone to a better school than I did, and done the absolute minimum classwork necessary to pass, and partied my ass off. The real value of college is in having the metaphorical blackmail pictures, of building relationships with the people with whom you’ll be sharing your career.

    Those personal connections are of far stronger value to the college student than whatever knowledge might be imparted in the classroom.

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