What’s a Degree Worth? A New Test Will Help Employers Know What a Graduate Has Learned

Letterman-BuildingIs a degree from Harvard worth more than one from Oklahoma State? By how much? A year at Harvard costs $52,650 versus about $9,000 at OSU. So is a graduate of Harvard almost six times better than one of OSU?

You may soon be able to tell, courtsey of a new test called the Collegiate Learning Assessment that supposedly provides an objective, benchmarked report card for critical-thinking skills.

The CLA is like an ACT or SAT test taken after a student finishes college. The goal is to establish what a student has learned, since just having a diploma and good grades are increasingly viewed with skepticism by employers. A survey found that only one in four employers think that colleges are doing a good job preparing students for the global economy.

Grade inflation has become epidemic — Cs now make up less than 10 percent of all grades. In 1969 the C was given more than one-quarter of the time. As overcame Bs to reach the top of the charts in grade popularity in the early 1990s. About half of all grades at schools are in the A range. Ds and Fs combined now represent about 2 percent of all grades given. The trend shows that grade-point averages are rising at a rate of about 0.15 points every decade. At this rate, practically all students will be getting all As before mid-century.

Students and parents expect and demand high grades. When I was teaching at a university I once had a student demand an explanation as to why he wasn’t getting an A in my class when he was in all others. I told him there were two possible reasons: he wasn’t working hard enough or he was dumb as a post. Now you know why I’m not in academia. Surveys show that many students now believe they are smarter than previous generations and expect their grades to reflect it.

That bubble of grades is about to be pricked if the CLA becomes popular. The test will be open to anyone (taking it is voluntary), including students who have taken online courses only. The test only takes 90 minutes to complete, so employers could even demand that any new grads applying for jobs take it.

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But how popular the test becomes remains to be seen. So far, only 200 colleges have signed up to offer it, less than 5 percent of all colleges in America. And none of the top schools like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, etc. have shown interest. That’s partly because they have massive brand equity that is seriously at risk of being diluted if it turns out their graduates aren’t scoring substantially higher than graduates of say Pomona State or, heaven forbid, the University of Phoenix.

image from Ball State University

Raghav Singh

Raghav Singh, director of analytics at Korn Ferry Futurestep, has developed and launched multiple software products and held leadership positions at several major recruiting technology vendors. His career has included work as a consultant on enterprise HR systems and as a recruiting and HRIT leader at several Fortune 500 companies. Opinions expressed here are his own.