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A Matter of No Small Degree : Education: Should America re-examine its love affair with degrees and tap into the potential of students who aren't college-bound?


It's the salesman's best pitch: "Invest now and you'll have enough for your kids to go to college." Who could say no? What parents don't want diplomas for their children? With all the noise about the need for higher education, who dares dream that a child can succeed without benefit of a degree?

And what are the alternatives anyway?

Sure, some have climbed to the top without that degree. Lack of college did not stop Peter Jennings from becoming a top newscaster, or David Geffen from becoming Hollywood's richest man, or Steve Jobs from pioneering personal computers, or Jess Mowry from writing award-winning fiction.

But aren't Jobs and Jennings--and dozens of other high-profile types--exceptions to the rule? Perhaps they are genetically gifted with a talent, drive and/or intellect that is not standard issue.

Not so, say analysts studying education in this country. They are simply the obvious success stories in a nation of potential successes whose talents are not being tapped.

Mark Tucker, president of the nonprofit National Center on Education and the Economy in Rochester, N.Y., and other experts say talents of non-college-bound youngsters are not valued. They get no respect, are educationally abandoned or ignored--and leave high school with no preparation and no credentials to help them dive into the economy's mainstream.

They say U.S. schools do not assess the average high school students' talents or skills and there is no way to know what potential may lie beneath an undistinguished academic record.

"In the U.S., if you don't go to college, you're nothing. That's absurd," Tucker says. "This is abominable elitism."

And it's the hot new topic inside educational circles.

'Diploma Test'

At the William Morris agency, for example, they won't even hire you for the mail room if you haven't finished college.

Says Larry Blaustein, vice president of the agency: "The mail room is part of our trainee program. We require a four-year degree, although many of our kids have also been to law school or have their master's."

Because so many corporations now use the "diploma test" to gauge whether applicants even get through the door to interview, the prognosis for much of the country's youth seems cloudy: The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that less than 50% of young people start college, and only 50% of those ever graduate. This leaves approximately 75% of those seeking jobs without the one asset--a diploma--employers increasingly require.

Critics of the system say education need not be synonymous with college: You can be an educated person without a degree, or be a dunce with one.

Says Robert Reich, U.S. Secretary of Labor: "America may have the worst school-to-work transition system of any advanced industrial country. Short of a college degree, there is no way someone can signal to an employer that he or she possesses world-class skills."

Unless, of course, you have the guts of Geffen, the billionaire music man.

Of his high school days in Brooklyn, Geffen recalls: "I wished I was a better, more motivated student. I knew I wasn't dumb, but I didn't know what to think about myself. I graduated in the lowest 10% of my class. The others were better--they had the discipline to study things that were of no interest to them."

Geffen, now 50, tried brief stints in college but couldn't get through his freshman year. So to get a start as an agent at William Morris, he lied and said he was a UCLA graduate. Knowing the company would check, he came to work early every day until he intercepted UCLA's letter, steamed it open and substituted a note that said he had finished there.

"I'm not proud of that. For me it was survival . . . I was not going to let a silly rule keep me from a job at which I was clearly destined to be great."

Geffen, who has taught classes in the entertainment field at UCLA and at Yale, still believes "it is not necessary to have a college degree to be a great agent. I totally believe in education. I've educated myself my whole life. But there are other kinds of schools besides college, and people come to success by different routes. Sometimes the best people do not have the best credentials."

Maybe so, but if today's attitudes continue, those who admit to no degrees will have little chance to make their mark. They will earn about 40% less in their lifetimes than those who have that piece of paper, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Meanwhile, the income gap between haves and have-nots continues to widen.

The New World Order

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