Page: A GED for college? Not as far-fetched as it sounds

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

When I saw the Wall Street Journal headline, “Some CEOs suggest dropping degree requirements in hiring,” I was impressed. At last, I thought, the business establishment is starting to see things my way.

I'm a big supporter of education in the spirit of — among other elders — my late grandmother, who was a public schoolteacher. But in the business world, education and a diploma are not necessarily the same thing.

Employers increasingly in recent decades have fallen under the spell of what critics call “over-credentialing” or “degree inflation,” demanding a bachelor’s degree for jobs that traditionally did not require one.

Clarence Page
Clarence Page

Since less than a third of the adult population has earned a four-year degree, a preference for college-educated employees taps a limited pool. The mismatch of supply and demand in midlevel positions (supervisors, technicians, sales representatives, data analysts and the rest) ends up “costing companies more to employ,” Harvard Business School professor Joseph Fuller has found, as they “tend to be less engaged in their jobs, have a higher turnover rate, and reach productivity levels only on par with high school graduates doing the same job.”

A growing number of companies appear to be getting wise to this trend and, without discarding academic qualifications, letting the world know that lack of a college degree won’t necessarily shut the door on their opportunities.

And that’s the spirit behind a new initiative behind the headline that caught my eye. In a business world response to the national racial reckoning that followed the death of George Floyd under a Minneapolis police officer’s knee, a group of 37 major corporate leaders and their companies came together to show what business can do to advance opportunities for black Americans.

Called OneTen, the initiative seeks to train and promote a million black Americans over the next 10 years, for “family-sustaining” jobs (translation: paying a wage high enough to support a family) that don’t require a four-year degree to start, according to the co-founders, Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier and Ginni Rometty, executive chairman of IBM.

Once employed, they will have opportunities to gain further training and promotions. Other companies in the effort include American Express, Delta Air Lines, Nike, Target and Walmart.

But does that exclude promising applicants who don’t happen to be African American? “This is a startup,” Rometty said, when asked that inevitable question on “CBS This Morning.” “While we’re starting with Black Americans, we intend to expand to other Americans. With any startup you have to start somewhere, we’re going to start with the group that’s at the top of our list — and, I think, when we do this for one group we can (expand) to do it for everyone.”

Indeed, it’s a start. Considering the other companies that have been opening their hiring goals up to bright college dropouts, whose numbers are legion, I was quickly reminded of an idea I endorsed almost a decade ago: A collegiate version of the GED (General Educational Development tests) long used by high school dropouts to earn a high school equivalency diploma.

I credit the idea to my semiretired economics professor Richard Vedder at Ohio University, who also is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute. When I called to get his view on the OneTen initiative, the widely-published critic of soaring college costs said he was delighted to read about an effort based on the same idea that inspired his collegiate GED idea.

“I know the SAT and ACT (college entry exams) are looked on with less favor at the moment, for a variety of reasons,” he said. “But the concept and benefits of testing are well established. The military, the government — the foreign service exam is a very good example — everybody does it and they get favorable results.”

So why isn’t everybody talking about the possibility of a college-level GED? You don’t have to be an economics professor to understand why the higher education establishment would look negatively at the idea. “It’s competition,” says Vedder, author of a 2004 book called, “Going Broke By Degree: Why College Costs Too Much,” that was not universally welcomed by that establishment.

But in this era of constantly changing education and training needs, we need to think hard about removing systemic barriers to promising young talent of all races.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

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