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A College Degree Isn’t Enough

An increasing number of employers have grown skeptical of traditional credentials.

When my daughter was recently invited to a job interview, she was told that she would also be given two tests of skills needed for the position she was seeking. She was puzzled because she had never encountered this before when applying for a job. Apparently, her degree and solid grades from a prestigious university had been sufficient.

Take Our Quiz: Will Your College Degree Pay Off?

“Not anymore,” I told her. An increasing number of employers have grown skeptical of degrees and other traditional credentials. Blame inflated grade-point averages and references who are sometimes less than candid about an employee’s performance.

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That’s why many employers are testing applicants for various qualifications: personality, aptitude, specific skills and knowledge and, increasingly, analytical thinking. (Kiplinger's magazine has long given diagnostic tests to would-be copy editors and reporters, and we assign freelance stories to journalists who apply for writing positions—a paid audition for a full-time job.)

The trend toward employer testing is also fueled by a backlash against the high cost of four-year colleges and mounting student debt. Some people argue that if job applicants can demonstrate that they have the knowledge and reasoning skills an employer needs, what difference does it make where—or if—they went to college?

A similar attitude is driving the trend toward condensed, tailored education, such as vocational training or an associate’s degree from a community college. Concentrated post-graduate study leading to a certificate in a narrow field can be a substitute for a pricey master’s degree. My daughter changed careers in her late twenties by completing a one-year certificate program in graphic and Web design. That, plus interviewing successfully and performing well on two tests, landed her a new job.

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New benchmarks. With a boom in non-conventional higher education—including distance learning and massive open online courses (MOOCs), whether free or tuition-based—there’s a growing need for tests on which applicants can demonstrate their smarts to employers.

Grad-school programs have long used the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) and its companion tests in math, the sciences and literature to rate students. But now employers are using those scores to assess job applicants, according to the Wall Street Journal. Anyone can take the GRE at any age, with any level of formal education, so some job hunters are proactively listing their scores on their résumés.

Another test that holds intriguing potential as a job credential for mentally demanding work is the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), an online exam that was once administered mostly to students by colleges as an internal measure of their teaching methods. The CLA uses realistic hypothetical challenges to assess creative problem-solving. The student’s written answers are scored by both a human being and artificial-intelligence software (and sometimes by a second human).

A new version of this rigorous test (called CLA+) will permit students to report their scores to prospective employers. And in spring 2014, the CLA+ will be available to anyone who wants to take it.

A traditional college education confers value that cannot be measured by testing—for example, the emotional maturation that occurs between the ages of 18 and 22. And the degree is also a rough measure of a student’s perseverance.

But people of all ages and backgrounds are learning valuable things on their own, at work, through self-education and in courses taken outside of degree programs. If these skills can be assessed by testing, they should matter to employers as much as a college pedigree—or even more.

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