Amazon vs. the tyranny of four-year degrees for all

Amazon has a new program for their employees, The Amazon Career Choice Program, that covers the cost of technical and associates degrees in in-demand fields. This is great news, and not just for the generic corporate social responsibility/”giving back” type of reason. If that’s all this was, then they could have put the same money toward regular college degrees.

No, this is great because it challenges the current received wisdom about higher education: that everyone should go to college (meaning they should go straight from high school to a four-year institution in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree) and that people should just study whatever interests them in college, without consideration of whether it’s going to be worthwhile later. The financial benefits of a four-year degree are fairly well-established, but most economists think at least some of that is due to “signaling” – indicating how talented you are – rather than due to actual benefits from going to school. This means that people who start college but don’t finish may get little benefit, or even pay a penalty since they’d be sending a negative signal about their ability. Breaking out of this system would be great for everyone, as would developing educational pathways for people who don’t want a bachelor’s degree. Imagine a world where someone who just wants to go into a specific field could get training to do it, without indicating to potential employers that they’re not smart enough for college.

One of the complaints I’ve seen about the program is that Amazon is being cheap, or that it should really cover college degrees. I strongly disagree. First, college isn’t automatically for everyone. Second, this program covers associate’s degrees, which in some states (California, for example) are a great way to get started toward a four year degree while a) not committing to it from the beginning, b) still getting something useful if you stop after two years, and c) spending far less money. Promoting associate’s degrees would be a great option for letting people opt out of the ideational hegemony of “college for all” while still letting folks try it out to see whether it’s a good idea. Amazon is staking out a position on the nearly-nonexistent other side of the higher education debate, and I’m optimistic that this program could do a lot to promote the acceptability of alternative educational paths.

Hat tip: Andrew Hamada on facebook

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