Appearing in “The Commercial Appeal” of Memphis, TN this week was a most interesting column by Robert J. Samuelson. As a former educator, I found it unusually edifying and I urge you to read it.

Samuelson’s initial paragraph serves as an introduction:

The college-for-all crusade has outlived its usefulness. Time to ditch it. Like the crusade to make all Americans homeowners, it’s now doing more harm than good. It looms as the largest mistake in educational policy since World War II, even though higher education’s expansion also ranks as one of America’s great postwar triumphs.

And, his final paragraph delivers an excellent summation:

The real concern is the quality of graduates at all levels. The fixation on college-going, justified in the early postwar decades, stigmatizes those who don’t go to college and minimizes their needs for more vocational skills. It cheapens the value of a college degree and spawns the delusion that only the degree — not the skills and knowledge behind it — matters. We need to rethink.

I hope you can find the time to read Samuelson’s entire piece. I have little doubt that he is correct in his most important observations. In fact, while reading it, I was reminded of the fact that while serving as CEO of ITC, I had first hired (and, later promoted to VP) two of the smartest and contributive employees the Company enjoyed in its long history. One of the individuals had gone from high school directly into the blue collar work force and the other had joined the Navy after high school before going to work in a nuclear power plant. Each had told me that, had they stayed in their positions, future management promotions would have been closed to them without a college degree. Well, I can assure you that their employers lost two highly intelligent individuals with creative leadership skills — solely because of their companies’ slavish attitudes to the college degree myth. ITC profited immensely from each of these two individuals during their long careers here.

Robert Maynard Hutchins, America’s greatest educator and President of the University of Chicago, argued similar ideas in the mid-twentieth century — but, to little avail as the GI Bill had changed American higher education forever. And, when American business institutionalized a college degree for almost every job classification, our nation shifted its focus from “ability” to “codification.” And, we became much the worse for it.

The problem lies not with our colleges and universities. All who choose to get a college degree should be afforded that opportunity. The problem lies with American business and industry and, specifically, with their HR departments. In their misinformed zeal, college-trained HR employees have mistakenly assumed that they can formulize qualifications for every job classification within their organization. Hence, college degree requirements have sprung up everywhere. Had these same HR employees actually had on-the-job experience within their own organization, they would have quickly realized that intelligence, skills and leadership ability can be readily found outside the college-track arena.

Obviously, corporate leadership needs to wise up to this deficiency in their HR groups. Too many highly contributive employees are being bypassed for promotion and too many highly qualified job applicants are having their resumes tossed into an HR wastebasket.

In many European countries, an apprenticeship program bestows on its graduates respect for their high level of skill, and those nations recognize this with nationally accepted certification. But, far too often, in America, the vo-tech track (without a college degree) is often perceived as dead-end, catering to society’s most disadvantaged by providing a minimum of skills designed to be used as a safety net from poverty.

We must change these attitudes! Skills, intelligence and leadership can be effectively acquired outside a college degree track — but, only when American business and industry accepts those individuals as equals. In the meantime, our country continues to waste the talents and potential of so many gifted young people.

After all, a college degree is proof only that you graduated. It is not a measure of the skills or knowledge you may possess.

More on Tuesday – – –

— Bill Walton, Founder, ITC Learning (Tuesdays & Thursdays)