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Higher Education Conformity


Can you be fired for doing a great job, year after year, and in fact becoming nationally known for your insight and performance? Yes, as in the case of Marilee Jones, who was the dean of admissions at MIT until her dismissal last week, when it was discovered that she had lied about her academic credentials 28 years ago. She had claimed three degrees, although she had none. If she had done a miserable job as dean, MIT might have been more forgiving, but her very success has to be threatening to an institution of higher learning: What good are educational credentials anyway?

Jones is hardly the only academic fraud. The outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas estimates that 10-30 percent of resumes include distortions if not outright lies. In the last couple of weeks, for example, “Dr. Denis Waitley Ph.D.” — as he is redundantly listed in the bestselling self-help book The Secret, where he appears as a spiritual teacher — has confessed to not having his claimed master’s degree, and the multi-level vitamin marketing firm he worked for admits that it can’t confirm the Ph.D. either.

All right, lying is a grievous sin, as everyone outside of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue knows. And we wouldn’t want a lot of fake MIT engineering graduates designing our bridges. But there are ways in which the higher education industry is becoming a racket: Buy our product or be condemned to life of penury, and our product can easily cost well over $100,000.

The pundits keep chanting that we need a more highly skilled workforce, by which they mean more college graduates, although the connection between college and skills is not always crystal clear. Jones, for example, was performing a complex job requiring considerable judgment, experience and sensitivity without the benefit of any college degree. And how about all those business majors — business being the most popular undergraduate major in America? It seems to me that a two-year course in math and writing skills should be more than sufficient to prepare someone for a career in banking, marketing, or management. Most of what you need to know you’re going to learn on the job anyway.

But in the last three decades the percentage of jobs requiring at least some college has doubled, which means that employers are going along with the college racket. A resume without a college degree is never going to get past the computer programs that screen applications. Why? Certainly it’s not because most corporate employers possess a deep affinity for the life of the mind. In fact in his book Executive Blues G. J. Meyers warned of the “academic stench” that can sink a career: That master’s degree in English? Better not mention it.

My theory is that employers prefer college grads because they see a college degree chiefly as mark of one’s ability to obey and conform. Whatever else you learn in college, you learn to sit still for long periods while appearing to be awake. And whatever else you do in a white collar job, most of the time you’ll be sitting and feigning attention. Sitting still for hours on end — whether in library carrels or office cubicles — does not come naturally to humans. It must be learned — although no college has yet been honest enough to offer a degree in seat-warming.

Or maybe what attracts employers to college grads is the scent of desperation. Unless your parents are rich and doting, you will walk away from commencement with a debt averaging $20,000 and no health insurance. Employers can safely bet that you will not be a trouble-maker, a whistle-blower or any other form of non-”team-player.” You will do anything. You will grovel.

College can be the most amazingly enlightening experience of a lifetime. I loved almost every minute of it, from St. Augustine to organic chemistry, from Chaucer to electricity and magnetism. But we need a distinguished blue ribbon commission to investigate its role as a toll booth on the road to employment, and the obvious person to head up this commission is Marilee Jones.

 

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of 13 books, most recently “Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream.”

 

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