What It Do: Dropping Out Part II – A Certain Degree

Last week, this space detailed my recent decision to drop out of college. The predatory nature of the financial aid apparatus along with the restrictive influence of arbitrary curriculum requirements convinced me that the university system was essentially just another hustle, and no longer worth my time and effort.

The most prevalent counter-argument put forth by well-meaning friends and family has been that, yes, the university system may be crooked, but that degree really does open certain doors that would be slammed shut otherwise.

True story.

In fact, the initial motivation for returning to college (again) was the notion that it would be cool to teach English overseas, and you almost invariably need a bachelor’s degree for those gigs. Because of my decision to drop out, my dreams of teaching little Korean kids about past participles and the difference between plural and possessive will probably not come to pass.

But what does a degree really have to do with my ability to teach people how to speak English? It would seem fluency in both languages and a firm grasp of grammatical rules would be the main necessities, followed by teaching ability, but the job postings I’ve seen barely mention those skills, if at all.

Some might say that some type of mechanism is needed to reduce what is likely a huge number of applicants to a manageable level. Fair play. But I know plenty of folks with bachelor’s degrees who can barely write a coherent paper, much less teach a non-native speaker the intricacies of the English language.

It would seem a more effective method would be to have an online test, where applicants had to demonstrate their command of the needed skillset. Sure, some idiots would cheat, but they would be quickly sussed out in follow-up interviews. If the goal was to find the best potential teachers, that would be the way to go about it.

Clearly, there is another motivation at play here. The businesses that offer these language education programs are not in it to altruistically spread the gift of communication throughout the world. They’re in it to make a profit. And being able to claim that their instructors are educated by the “American University System” creates a superior perception of value among their customers, even if the reality is something quite different. There’s not really anything wrong with that, on the part of the business, but it does speak to a deeper problem with the way our society operates, in the global sense.

When you hire someone to do a job, ideally you are seeking to connect the requirements of the job with the person most able to competently achieve them. Again, a degree tells you very little about someone’s real life abilities, intelligence, or work ethic, which is why young graduates are having such a tough time in today’s job market. In the real world, nobody cares what your GPA was or what student organizations you were involved in; they care whether you add value to the business.

So why do so many jobs require degrees? To a certain extent, it depends on the individual gig, but when taken from a broader view, a pattern emerges. There is no shortage of brilliant, capable people out there who, for whatever reason, didn’t complete a college degree, and there are plenty of ways to demonstrate competence aside from a line-entry on a resumé.

I did a stint in AmeriCorps, working with the Fish and Wildlife Department out in Washington State. The director of the facility where I worked was retiring, and his right-hand man had been on the job for years and was ready to take over at the drop of a hat. It’s hard to imagine anybody being a more qualified applicant than that man.

Except he was ineligible for the position because he hadn’t finished his degree, and there wasn’t enough time for him to knock it out before they needed to fill the position. So instead of having a dedicated expert running the helm, they hired some stranger with a pretty resumé, and the guy who should have been doing the job was prevented from advancing his life.

And that is the problem with the omnipresent degree requirement. It’s just another arbitrary enforcement of the class system. Completing college (much like staying out of prison if you get in trouble) is mostly a matter of financial resources. Financial aid is available, of course, but, as was covered last week, it usually comes with some serious strings attached. Those who have the financial resources to complete their degree are able to access opportunities unavailable to those who don’t have said resources, perpetuating the rigidity of the class structure generation after generation.

I’ve heard most people end up in roughly the same financial situation as the one in which they were raised (or at least did before our corporate overlords decided to try to make us all po’ folks). That isn’t by accident, and it isn’t because of complacency on the part of working-class Americans. It’s because the system is designed to be that way.