Bachelor’s Degree Equivalency

On a prior thread here, as well as in recent discussions at Perverse Egalitarianism and Hyper Tiling, it’s been observed that higher education is too often regarded as a consumer good, bought by students and sold by colleges and universities. For undergrads the most valuable educational commodity is the bachelor’s degree, required as an eligibility requirement by many employers and by graduate schools. The degree is bought in installments as it were: once you accumulate the required number of credit hours you get the sheepskin. Colleges charge a lot of money per credit hour, and the bill has to be paid by somebody — the government, the student, rich patrons of private colleges — if those credit hours are going to be credited to the student’s account. Even if a student takes on the formidable task of self-study, amassing as much knowledge as does a traditional college degree recipient, there is no badge of achievement to be bestowed on the autodidact. Only formally-accredited colleges and universities can award the bachelor’s degree, and they award degrees only to students who enroll in and pass the required number of courses.

But why couldn’t there be an equivalent to the bachelor’s degree?

There’s an equivalent to the high school diploma, at least in the US and Canada. Students who pass the standardized GED tests receive a high school equivalency certificate, accepted by most employers and by 95% of US colleges. That’s fairly remarkable, since the GED certificate-holder tends to carry a public stigma: it’s widely assumed that the GED betokens academic failure in high school, behavior problems that got the kid expelled, perhaps teen motherhood for girls. I’ve not looked into research about how well the GED kids perform at the next level; I do know that my cousin, who dropped out of high school and who eventually got her GED, later earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

On the other side of the spectrum, bright and industrious students can earn college credits while still in high school. High scores on standardized Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams and essays can be worth up to two years of college credit hours. The student pays a fee for AP and IB evaluations, but the price is minuscule compared to college tuition. Of course these courses aren’t free: they’re taught by high school teachers as part of their salaried job. But that’s interesting in its own right: these are successful teachers of college-level courses who typically have at most a bachelor’s degree in the subjects they’re teaching.

It’s even possible to earn an associate degree — the terminal degree awarded by community colleges — simultaneously with a high school diploma. Unlike IB and AP courses, these dual-enrollment programs don’t target the highest-aptitude students; rather, they’re intended for kids who, often for financial reasons, don’t expect to continue their educations after high school. Apparently the added challenge and incentive of the dual-enrollment option also tends to keep more kids in high school who otherwise would be at high risk of dropping out.

It’s not like a bachelor’s degree is some sort of standardized product. Requirements differ quite widely by school and by majors. Even within a particular school, two profs might teach the same course very differently, using widely disparate teaching materials, imposing very different expectations on their students. The high school AP and IB courses present far more uniformity than do the “real” college courses for which they serve as equivalents. “Real” college professors might deem this level of standardization a bad development, turning education into a production line that minimizes the importance of individuality among professors and students alike. Maybe so, but isn’t there always the danger of mystification and fetishization in claiming that the essence of one’s product cannot be reduced to formulaic specification and quantification, even when the very high price charged for that product is very precisely specified and quantified indeed?  Still, standardization can be done, and it is being done successfully in the case of AP and IB.

Why not take educational standardization even farther: not just two years’ of college credit, but four; not just an associate degree, but a bachelor’s degree? Let some panel of professors agree upon what should constitute adequate preparation generally and in specific subject areas to qualify for the undergraduate degree. Broadly specify the course curriculum and readings; organize discussion sessions either in person or on line; conduct standardized exams; have the experts evaluate the exams, essays, and theses. Students who qualify could earn a bachelor’s degree without ever setting foot in a traditional college lecture hall or, more importantly, without paying the exorbitant and always-increasing tuition expense. I’m sure the brick-and-mortar universities will want protect their product. Fine: call it a B.A. or B.S. equivalent then. If it’s done right, I think the word would eventually spread among employers and grad schools that the equivalent really is equivalent.


  1. sam carr says:

    I’d agree. Education is a very big business in the developing world too. In India, we do have something called an “Open University” where UG and PG programs are largely based on guided self study/distance education, with little in the way of infrastructure, so though they still charge students, the fees are comparatively much lower than attending a ‘standard’ college. The concept has been heavily attacked by ‘regular’ educational institutions, and very specifically on the question of equivalence i.e. the OU degree just isn’t the same as a ‘normal’ college degree.

    Another interesting local experiment is in the field of engineering where there is an associate membership in India’s Institute of Engineers made available to any high school graduate who successfully passes a series of examinations – I believe up to 17 of them – and this actually does equivalently qualify one as an engineer.


  2. ktismatics says:

    That’s good to know about, Sam. These seem like good innovations. The question of equivalence seems open to empirical investigation, although it’s likely that the entitled established institution will claim some ineffable superiority that transcends measurement. And I don’t doubt that the experience of actually attending university adds a certain richness to the experience, at least for some (I personally didn’t feel it as an undergrad). But are they necessarily qualitatively better than some other set of experiences that the Open University student undergoes?


  3. ktismatics says:

    Today on American Stranger I read about the Hacking the Academy project. It consolidates several academic bloggers’ posts on re-envisioning the university, all of them written last week.


  4. ktismatics says:

    On a related note, Carl from Dead Voles is currently holed up in a college town not far from here grading AP history essays. Mikhail from Perverse Egalitarianism and I met up with Carl for dinner last night. A good time was had by all.


  5. Shahar Ozeri says:

    Per our discussion of for profit colleges, this is interesting:

    The dinner sounds fun, but I hope Mikhail’s table manners were at least passable…


  6. ktismatics says:

    I’ve read through all but the last 2 or 3 pages of the slide show — fascinating, appalling, tragic. I’ll have to get back to this in more detail probably tomorrow.

    Dinner was fine. Unfortunately Mikhail drank a bit too much, became belligerent and verbally abusive to the waitstaff, was asked to leave, couldn’t find his car, and spent the night on a park bench. Oh wait, maybe that was me…


  7. ktismatics says:

    It’s sort of disturbing that this critique of for-profit universities coming from a hedge-fund advisor. Ethical qualms are one thing, but we’re talking about investment money here. If this guy is recommending a sell-off, he must be pretty persuaded that the politicians are going to curtail the student loan gravy train sooner rather than later. Still, he recognizes that the feeding frenzy could continue, the government could fail to act in a timely fashion, and the economy will take another huge hit from another round of uncollectable loans sold to people who can’t afford them. And why haven’t the elected and appointed officials protected the people already, especially as the mortgage fiasco is still going on? The guy is explicit: lobbyists have bought everyone off. Surely there are econmists who work for the CBO or OMB or whatever who have access to the same numbers the hedge-fund firms do. Presumably their warnings have been willfully ignored. The one encouraging part of the sell recommendation: job prospects may get better soon, so fewer un- and underemployed people will be looking to U. of Phoenix etc. for a better financial future. I hope they’re right about that one.

    Clearly there’s a demand for more post-high school education that’s not been met by traditional community colleges and universities. And there’s also a supply of underpaid and underemployed Ph.D.s available to teach. And there are lots of ways of cutting costs already being used by all manner of higher-education vendors, yet without the cost savings accruing to the students. It seems to me that the non-profit universities have failed to make education more affordable, while the government has failed to deploy in the most democratically effective way possible the ever-dwindling resources it allocates for higher education.


  8. ktismatics says:

    Shahar, if you come back to this thread, do you have insight into why urban students would sign up for an expensive for-profit college rather than a low-tuition state college or university located in the city? Either option lets the students live at home rather than pay room and board, both tend to have flexible class hours for part-time students who work. Are the state schools not big enough to meet the demand? Or do the for-profits purport to offers something the more traditional schools don’t; e.g. job training, more practical courses, etc.?

    …Never mind, I asked these same questions on your latest post at Perverse Egalitarianism.


  9. Robert Morgan says:

    You missed a very wide use of experience equivalency concerning college degrees. The US Government “General Services Administration (GSA)” awards contracts based on GSA Schedules proposals submitted by contractors when bidding on Government contracts with their pricing information. These proposals are approved by the Government. In their proposals are pricing information and skill-set needed to complete the contracts.

    I can not find anything on the internet relating to equivalency, providing meanful information. I have worked on contracts and been certified as being equivalent to 4 years of college but some companies will not hire you if don’t have a 4 year college degree regardless of your experience.

    It seems everything you read is from experienced based colleges or 4 year traditional colleges and no factual information concerning the truth. For university it for profit (approved by the Government) and for experience based colleges (not approved by the government [but legal] for profit. It seem like non-traditional colleges and traditional college are competing against each other and the traditional colleges and universities (has the Government on their side) AS BIG BUSINESS with no relation — as being a college!


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