New University of California: A Good Idea

A California assemblyman named Scott Wilk has proposed a “New University of California” whose only purpose would be to provide certification tests — tests that show you have learned the material of this or that college class. Here is what his bill says:

(1) The New University of California shall provide no instruction, but shall issue college credit and baccalaureate and associate degrees to any person capable of passing examinations.

(2) The New University of California is authorized to contract with qualified entities for the formulation of peer-reviewed course examinations the passage of which would demonstrate that the student has the knowledge and skill necessary to receive college credit for that course.

This is not online education. You can learn the material however you want — for example, by reading a book.

An unsigned New York Times editorial called the idea “particularly ludicrous” but did not say why. I think it’s a good idea. It gives students much more power: They can choose the learning methods and materials and times that fit them best (listening to lectures at work, for example), in contrast to the one-class-fits-all approach at almost all colleges. The cost in time and money will be much less than attending a typical university. The proposal helps employers because passage of these tests reflects a skill useful in many jobs: ability to learn on one’s own.

Compared to an ordinary college degree (say, from Berkeley), a degree or certification from the New University of California fails to show that you did well enough in high school to get admitted to Berkeley. This could be remedied by showing your prospective employer a letter of admittance to Berkeley.

13 Replies to “New University of California: A Good Idea”

  1. This needs to become a reality soon. I live in California andfind no way to leverage my independent interests and studies in topics without having to jump through the hoops of accreditation as it stands now. You know all that stuff that people list under hobbies or interests, which shouldn’t really be on a resume anyway? This would provide great incentive to get them accredited. So far I’ve felt helpless doing this without the investment of time and money that a formalized education track entails

    As for the NYTimes editorial, it shows they’re still living in the past. It’s riddled with condescending vocab. It’s not logical. Look at this statement:

    “At the same time, however, the Legislature is awash in bills that seem to assume that online education is the answer to to the problem. One particularly ludicrous bill would create a “New University of California” that offered no instruction but would issue credentials to people merely for passing exams.”

    The first sentence doesn’t follow the other. This is not about online education, it’s about offering no instruction and letting the student determine the best means to seek their instruction. It’s a hit-job. I used to live in NYC and attended a college there, and I think it’s in line with the usual wariness they show towards California education initiatives. Let them focus on their own backyard. But even the local power structure feels threatened:

    http://www.dailycal.org/2013/04/01/bill-proposes-fourth-state-university-system/

    At this point I feel there is no recourse and it’s a bit frustrating.

  2. Great idea, Seth.

    Not only does the Times not give strong reasons for calling the “New” schools “ludicrous,” but the editorial actually acknowledges that online courses “work well for highly skilled, highly motivated students” – is this not a benefit to California?

    Also, one might ask a more fundamental question about California’s education system: that is, why colleges are used as warehousing for “large numbers of struggling students who lack basic competencies and require remedial education.”

  3. This is like an extension and loosening of the classic Oxbridge system: the Colleges did the teaching and the University set and marked the exams.

    That system partially broke down with the arrival of science and its expensive labs. I have yet to see a sensible account of how lab teaching and similar “practical” activities will be provided for online-educated students : it should not be beyond the wit of man to cope, especially since the content and educational merit of practical classes have been so heavily diluted Since My Day.

    Perhaps that point generalises: O/L education may be a poor thing compared to what a university education should be – but compared to what it has widely decayed into, O/L education might be fine.

  4. The NYT has missed the point. The main idea here is to have an independent, *objective* examination to assess what thew student has learned, not how they learned it.
    We already have a real world version of this, in every state and country – the driving test for your drivers licence. This test is administered by the state (though this service may contracted out) and it doesn’t matter how you learn, you have to pass the test.

    There are similar admissions tests for public (civil) service, bar associations and numerous professional groups. this is merely an extension of the same, well proven concept.

    As Dearieme alludes, they might want to exclude testing for certain areas that would have a large practical/laboratory component (physics, chemistry, engineering, medicine) though even those disciplines grade their students by examinations.

    I think we will see more of this, and I thoroughly support the concept.

  5. Seems to me that the way to find out whether this idea is good or ludicrous is to do it and see how the market responds to the NUC’s college credits.

    I think that would depend in part on how rigorous the examinations are. If all the NUC did were to provide a substitute for IQ tests that isn’t illegal in hiring as IQ tests are, that could attract a lot of businesses.

    Seth: Yes, I think it might help a lot if the actual scores were provided, not just whether or not they passed a certain threshold. Perhaps along with a percentile derived from other people who had taken the test. Let the test taker decide if that info will be provided.

  6. Yes. It is basic specialisation / division of labour to unbundle accreditation from teaching. The best teachers and students will benefit enormously, the mediocre will have to find something they are better at.

  7. I also think that it is a great idea but I am very much surprised by your last paragraph. I think the whole point of such a university is eliminating the need for an admittance letter to Berkeley. A student who did not work hard in high school should not suffer its consequences as long as he/she acquired the required skills for the job market. If high school knowledge is essential for the job market, it can also objectively assessed.

    Seth: Maybe how well you do in high school has predictive power. In other words, maybe people who do better in high school do better at Job X than people who do worse. If that’s true, and I were hiring for Job X, I’d want to take high school performance into account.

  8. Didn’t this used to happen more often? My step-father (who is 79 years old) said he went to a junior college (San Mateo?) for two years. Transfers to Cal and attended one year then took the engineering test, passed and went to work for the State of California for the next 40 years without having graduated from Cal.

  9. I’m reading _Shadow Scholar_ which is about cheating and education– the author writes papers for other people.

    The stakes are so high that a credentialing organization had better administer the test in person with strict ID requirements.

    Seth: At one point, while I was teaching at Berkeley, I was worried about cheating on a test. I wanted a larger classroom for the test so that the students could sit further apart. The chairman of my department told me: “We’re not in that business” (of preventing cheating).

  10. Three comments:

    1. The bill says that the NUC is authorized to contract with “qualified entities”. It’s important that these entities be selected objectively and not because, say, they have funded someone’s political campaign.

    2. There are at least a couple other areas where the government currently provides a certification exam but does not require government training, per se: building contractor exams and real estate broker exams.

    3. Part of the value of a UC education has long been that it is selective. Not just anyone gets in. And the NUC could well be as selective as the existing UC, using the same types of criteria as current UCs do. Or, it could use a more or less selective set of criteria. It need not abandon application selectivity altogether.

    Seth: The UC system is not very selective at the undergraduate level, at least in terms of graduation. Many students transfer in from junior colleges, which are not selective at all. In any case, the notion of needing to pass a threshold in order to take a test that measures what you want to measure doesn’t make a lot of sense. If you want to find good plumbers, for example, it doesn’t make sense to prevent anyone from taking a test of plumbing skill. Your Point #3 does bring out what a big change a test-centered “university” could cause.

  11. This is indeed the best thing since sliced bread, if implemented properly.

    It makes more sense to have a strong industry input component — the companies that will do the hiring should be able to design a set of test criteria in order to get exactly the knowledge / skill set they want in an applicant. Passing a certain set of tests would take care of most if not all of the technical component of the interview process; the remainder would be personal compatibility and other soft factors which would be more particular to the hiring company.

    There is no reason for the process of learning to be limited in any way, by arbitrary selectivity for entry, ability to pay, or any other way. It’s time to take the universities out of the credential business. Their costs are too high.

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