Why some degrees may be worthless

Some schools pressure instructors to give out high grades.

Many of us who have been in the corporate world for awhile have encountered  a situation or two like this: You run into recent grads who don't seem to actually know much about subjects they were supposed to have mastered in school.

Now, management consultant Bob Lewis has provided some insight on this conundrum in one of his recent Keep the Joint Running posts: "Once upon a time," says Lewis, "I taught an IT-related topic in a local university’s graduate program. I awarded A’s to those students who excelled, B’s to those who did well, C’s to those who achieved a basic level of understanding, and D’s to everyone worse.

The Dean asked me to change my grading. Why? Most of the program’s students were eligible for tuition reimbursement from their employers, but only if they maintained a B average. The school’s revenue depended on lax standards."

Lewis further laments that a similar phenomenon is at work in more and more educational institutions simply because graduation rates are increasingly considered a measure of a school's "worthiness."

"The target graduation rate for colleges and universities seems to be around 90%," says Lewis. "For contrast, the U.S. Air Force Academy only passes 75% or so, which makes sense once you figure whoever passes might be the one you rely on to shoot down the enemy plane shooting at you."

The result: Good pilots. But from other institutions, graduates who are ill prepared in subjects they supposedly have mastered.

Discuss this Blog Entry 16

joe bonasses (not verified)
on Sep 4, 2013

"tuition reimbursement" - the great Ponzi scheme rolls on....

Actually, half of all degrees issued to college graduates between 2009 and 2012 are worthless, as more than fifty percent of these graduates are working jobs that don't even require a degree...

on Sep 4, 2013

I read of an interesting solution to the tuition/college loan problem: Make colleges co-sign the students' loans. It would give college administrators an incentive to make sure students graduated with degrees that would lead to paying jobs. Otherwise, they would be stuck paying back the loans.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Sep 4, 2013

Contrasting the Air Force Academy to an University? The Air Force pays them while in school regardless of failure. University students pay to be educated, and pay a lot. They should have high graduation rates and leave school with knowledge not just a paper. Ideally a school's graduation rate would be 100% and the students leave possessing the knowledge required. The knowledge that a student leaves the school with falls on the shoulders of both the student and teacher. I had teachers that understood this concept in school and they were my favorite. They expected to share the responsibility of learning. Most students excelled in those classes. The teachers who did not think the burdened should be shared, resulted in lower pass rates and those who did pass were less knowledgeable on the subject than peers with a better teacher.

on Sep 4, 2013

As an ex-military type, I couldn't let this one pass. Military academies will not pay students/cadets/midshipmen regardless of failure. Fail enough courses, and it probably isn' that many, and you're out. You may even owe Uncle Sam some money or some time (as an enlisted person).
And then the reader says colleges grad rates ideally should be 100%. No; some kids don't make the grade, literally, and deserve not to graduate. In fact, of the 4.3 million students who entered college in 2004, only 1.019 made it to a degree, a grad rate of 23%. (Here's a link to that last fact: http://collegecompletion.chronicle.com/.)

Anonymous (not verified)
on Sep 4, 2013

I was a technician for 20 yrs. before I received my BSEE. I decided to go back to school after I met and worked with several degreed engineers I was always having to help -especially with basic trouble-shooting. Before then I didn't think I was smart enough to be an engineer. I did ok at school and after I graduated I expected a change in job position and salary. I did not receive any money from the company I was working for to attend school. In fact, they discouraged me and were very uncooperative about schedule and such. It seems good techs make a lot of money for the company than engineers. If I got my degree, they would have to pay me more and change my job description. I would be spending more time making view graphs and less time trouble-shooting and making things work. I had to apply for an engineering position at another company to get an engineering job with engineering type salary.

Company's create this problem. They pay people based on their educational background and made up hoops -edicts from higher ups. I have since earned a Master's and will probably go back next year for a doctorate. None of my prior work or accomplishments seem to matter as much as the degree I hold. This is stupid. The smart people are the ones who can teach themselves and get the job done. Sometimes I wonder if that is really what managers want.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Sep 4, 2013

To begin with 98% of colleges are liberal, that means they teach in a liberal atmosphere & with liberal philosophy. They should teach just the facts, & when in situations the require a scenario to explain a isuue, give an eual balanced viewpoint & let the students make thier own decisions. also thes professors are more concerned with big salaries & many live in college/university owned homes. This means they pay no proerty taxes. Even here in N.H., our local UNH professors said a couple years ago, they wante draises to be inline with other like universities so as all to realise the more expensive a school the better the education. HA! what a load of Bull!

You must be balanced & even in everyday activities not to influence one way or other, but to promote what really is right from wrong & let students make thier own choices as they grow through life. most your so called prof. know lot of tech. info, but some how it doesn't seem to get completly forwarded to the students. I've seen many search engines written by college graduated computer programmers who don't know how to program a roll of T. Paper. We did better back in 74 & 75 on HP2100 TSb with a teletype!

Anonymous (not verified)
on Sep 4, 2013

We have decided somewhere that everyone MUST go to college. Few are prepared. BUT, there 'college' is a big industry with very high fixed costs and total labor inflexibility. Most people do not need a college degree to do their current jobs. But, we have to feed the beast.

At some point the scheme collapses. We are near that now.

My dad questioned why I should be an engineer. 'why, the aerospace industry is laying them all off!" he observed. Tried to get me to start an apprenticeship with a friend who was a plumber. "Always got to flush toilets, don't need to go the the Moon again!"

now_eng (not verified)
on Sep 4, 2013

As someone who managed both to graduate and who's got a few engineering jobs under my belt (7 yrs experience,) I do believe grade inflation is pretty real. My (well-known engineering) school's version of grade inflation was to give students C's rather than fail them out, though it was a thin line between a C and a F. An A was hard to earn, and a real achievement, and I ended up with a B+ average.

However, hitting the Real World (tm), I found that many students from other schools had much better GPA's than I, even though I found them to be woefully lacking in skills and critical thinking abilities. This left me ineligible for certain scholarships and opportunities, and in general made it a little difficult with certain kinds of large institutions. But now I've ended up working for several small companies who valued my skills rather than a single number, and I haven't looked back.

walt (not verified)
on Sep 4, 2013

Point taken, but "worthless" is too strong. You sound like a bunch of old-timers posturing.

glass99 (not verified)
on Sep 12, 2013

I agree. The world has changed, mostly for the better, sometimes for the worse, but either way its not 1950 any more.

Bill (not verified)
on Sep 4, 2013

When I matriculated at college I was told to look to my right and look to my left and to my right at an assembly of the Engineering and Science students. We were then told in 6 months one of those people would no longer be in the program. They were correct. Technical disciplines require a technical mind. Making the requirements more lax dilutes the value of a degree for those who passed when things were "fair".

Anonymous (not verified)
on Sep 5, 2013

I've made a career as an engineering professional not presenting a degree. Somehow I've been modestly successful in my career, in spite of my substandard educational pedigree.

Personally, I wouldn't give you two cents for a new hire who has a degree but who cannot compose a sentence, identify the cathode on an LED by sight, verbally articulate with precision the difference between inertia and momentum or work basic calculus by hand on paper. Further, I have an apparently ridiculous expectation that a newly matriculated collegian should be able to state with understanding at least one classical philosopher's position, and quote one meaningful passage of Holy Scripture; even as they could confirm that the fork goes on the left and the knife on the right.

A surprising number of those whom I interview can do few or even none of the above. Inevitably, these types possess degrees and even high honors from well known institutions.
It leaves me wondering if their major field of study was the patterns of bubbles in the bottom of the glasses at the local pub.
Since I possess no degree, it is possible that I'm not qualified so to judge. :-)

Fred McG (not verified)
on Sep 5, 2013

Education creates liberals from the POV of folk who can remain "conservative" only through practicaced ignorance. Most colleges have the unenviable job of convincing folk who are determined that they know things that are in fact demonstrably not true that reality does not care one whit. Quantum and SR/GR are great examples of just how narrow and local our view point is when we enter college. Also, near as I can tell, the major factor that our companies get from the college educated is that they are stubborn and hard working enough to torture themselves with the myraid tasks needed to graduate. (From a physicist who writes labview code for a living).

Stanley McCall (not verified)
on Sep 9, 2013

I am a senior mechanical designer. I do not have a university degree and feel that has held me back in my career. For the past nine years I have been working for a large consulting engineering company doing design reviews, checking drawings and mentoring junior engineers in design concepts and basic drafting.
I now once again find myself out of work and most of the jobs that I find advertized are requiring an engineering degree.
If you need an engineer to put his stamp on a drawing that is one thing but you do not need to pay the whole design office to put their stamp on the drawings. If you need calculations you have FEA programs. With any program you have to use it to become proficient in it. It is easy to have garbage in garbage out. It is better to have one or two people who are doing the FEA on a regular basis than a lot of people doing once in awhile.
Can anyone explain why companies are paying engineering wages for drafting and machine design and staffing their offices with people with university degrees?
A person who has been to university is assumed to have the head knowledge to do the job and to have the ability to learn but that does not mean that they have any practical ability to design machines and structures.

bonderman (not verified)
on Sep 9, 2013

Some interesting comments here. Mine are the result of interviewing hundreds of engineering students over the thirty years I managed a company. . (Yes, I was CEO but my number one task was finding and keeping the “right” people.)
I found a huge difference in the average technical competence of grads from my “string” of universities. We used simple test questions to weed out the unqualified. These questions should have produced a 95% score yet one highly rated school averaged around 20%. Many of these EE grads could not solve simple Ohms law problems.
The department chair asked me to discuss this with his faculty. I asked why their students were so unqualified. They complained about the poor quality of their intake. When I asked why they didn’t deal with this after the first semester of the freshman year and help students find success in another field, they said that wasn’t their job.
My conclusion was that this faculty was simply lazy and indifferent to their moral obligation as teachers. I quit interviewing there.

steve orbon (not verified)
on Oct 10, 2013

I got my bachelors degree at Wabash College in 1965 where the graduation rate was 50% or less, and my PhD in Materials Science in 1978. Since then I worked in industry for 44 years, and two examples stand out:

1. A recent metallurgical graduate from an engineering university sent out reports to customers, without review. When a metallurgist who went to grad school with me reviewed them, his comment was "I'm not sure, but there might be English in there somewhere."

My granddaughter was a Sophomore on the physician's assistant at a local university taking an introductory chemistry. As near as I can tell I had the material in the course when I was in high school.

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