May 13, 2015

A couple of years ago a most insightful column appeared in THE COMMERCIAL APPEAL (Memphis, TN), “College No Longer for Everyone” by Robert J. Samuelson:

“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. . . .

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.”

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, without a college degree, had they stayed in their former positions, future management opportunities would have been closed to them.

Well, I can assure you that their former employers lost two highly intelligent individuals with creative leadership skills — solely because of their companies’ slavish attitudes to the college degree myth.

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 formulaize 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.

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.

We must change these attitudes!

Skills, intelligence and leadership can be effectively acquired outside a college degree track (as I reported in Monday’s posting, “OPPORTUNITIES ARE ACCELERATING,“ which emphasized the growing demand for apprenticeship training) — 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.

Next week is the ATD International Conference (formerly known as ASTD). I’ll be in booth 207 in case you get a chance to stop by. Since Memorial Day falls on the Monday after I return, the next posting won’t be until May 27.

— Bill Walton: co-Founder, ITC Learning (Mondays & Wednesdays)