Sunday, July 24, 2011

College degrees and fastballs

This is a follow-up to the post below regarding college, and an explanation of my own personal theory about the reasons why college degrees are overrated.

First, here's a link to an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Titled, "Are Too Many Students Going to College?" the article provides a number of interesting quotes, and also points out that in 1970, 40 percent of high school graduates went on to college, but that number is now closer to 70%. Most of those who share insights in the article agree that a four-year college is a poor choice for most high school students, with one of them saying, "College attendance, in my view, is usually a drain on our economy and society."

For the first 200 years or so of the United States, a college degree was a requirement only for certain professions, or higher levels of a company. But almost anyone attempting to crack the job market, or move up in an organization, often finds out that the words, "Four-year degree required," can stop your career in its tracks. Why is that? Well, my theory relates to the sports world.

For years, baseball scouts or college coaches trying to find pitchers would go out and look for young men who knew how to, well, pitch. There's a lot more to pitching than just throwing a baseball hard. I've spent literally thousands of hours behind home plate, either as a catcher or as an umpire, and I know what it takes to successfully pitch. Good pitchers don't need to throw hard. It doesn't hurt, but it's not a requirement. They DO need to throw with control (putting the pitch where they want it), they need to know how to read a batter's weaknesses (Does he hit high pitches or low? Can he handle inside pitches? Will he chase an outside curve ball?), and they need to learn how to keep hitters off-balance by changing the speed and movement of their deliveries. Baseball history is full of successful pitchers who - as the saying goes - "couldn't break glass" with their fastball but knew how to pitch.

But sometime around the late '70s or early '80s, the portable radar gun became widely available. Now a scout could sit behind home plate, and figure out how hard a kid's fastball was. Instead of writing in a scouting report "Has good fastball, sharp curve, changes speeds well," they now wrote "Consistently throws 90-92 MPH."

Suddenly there was an objective number taking the place of subjective judgment, and because human beings tend to be risk-averse, the number became a way to cover your backside. If a scout recommended that a certain pitcher be drafted, and the pitcher didn't work out, the scout could say "I don't understand it. The gun said he threw 92," and everyone would excuse the scout for a poor selection, because his decision was based on the radar gun's number. Never mind that the kid never really knew how to pitch.

But now imagine if a scout said, "This kid doesn't throw real hard, but he knows how to pitch. I watched him throw a three-hit shutout where he had no strikeouts, but he only walked one batter and only threw 82 pitches. I think we should draft him." When that pitcher is drafted and doesn't work out, the scout is going to be ridiculed, because "Everyone knows you shouldn't draft someone who can't throw 90+." And so scouts became conditioned to protect themselves by relying on the number. A piece of electronic equipment had replaced judgment, experience and acumen.

Another example, from another sport: There was a local kid in Red Wing (I won't name him, but if you're from here you probably know who I'm talking about) who was a phenomenal golfer. Went to the state tournament in his younger years, was shooting par or better as a high school freshman, had a bright future ahead of him. So bright, in fact, that a Big Ten school asked him early on to commit to a scholarship, which he did.

The beauty of his game was that he knew how to "work" a golf ball. If the hole layout called for a long, low draw, he could hit it. If he needed a high fade to a back pin location, he could do it. And around the greens, his touch was impeccable. His only flaw: He didn't regularly hit 300-yard tee shots. Hitting the monster long drive wasn't part of his game. But as they say in golf, "It's not how, it's how many," and he knew how to get around the course in as few strokes as possible.

But this wasn't good enough for the Big Ten coach. Having recruited the young man, he now sought to change his game. He wanted the kid to hit those long 300+ yard drives, and so - while the kid was still in high school - he started working on changing the kids' swing to get more distance. In almost no time, the changes ruined his swing. In trying to generate more power, he lost the tempo and rhythm and plane of his beautiful swing. He began fighting a vicious snap-hook, he lost confidence and by his senior year of high school, he didn't even qualify for the state tournament that he had been a pre-season favorite to win.

He went on to the Big Ten school, but it didn't last. He never regained his swing, and dropped out of the golf program before his junior year.

So why did the coach want to change his swing? Because he wanted a number - the 300-yard drive - to validate his decision to recruit the boy. If you recruit a kid who can hit the ball half a mile, and it doesn't work out, you've covered your butt by saying, "We had to take a chance on him, he could hit it 330 regularly." But if a kid doesn't work out and you say, "He had great hands and a terrific short game and I thought he was worth taking a shot on," you get laughed at.

All of which brings me back to my theory: As a society, we've lost our willingness to go with "gut instincts," and we're terrified to take the risk of making a bad decision. It's just not in sports, it's part of the corporate world as well.

Once upon a time, people running Human Resources departments - they used to be called "Personnel" - would fill a job by reviewing an applicant's experience and education and learning about them through an interview. At the end of the process they made a gut decision based not only on an applicant's skill set, but on his personality and aptitude.

Once in a while, a hire didn't work out, but that was okay because everyone understood it's an inexact science. Hiring was a subjective judgment, and subjective judgments are, by nature, sometimes wrong.

Now, however, the HR person has learned that if they only use objective criteria, they can insulate themselves from being criticized. "If I make it a requirement to only hire someone with a college degree, then I can't be criticized if someone with a college degree doesn't work out." Never mind that holding a college degree tells you nothing about a person's work ethic, ability to adapt to change, ability to respond in a crisis situation or any other quality that makes a valuable employee.

Like the baseball scout and the golf coach, the HR person knows that if they never use their instincts, they're immune from being second-guessed.

And so the pitcher who can get batters out, the kid who can shoot par and the bright, energetic job prospect who knows how to keep customers satisfied are denied opportunities because they can't throw 92, can't drive the ball 330 yards or they never got a college degree. Talent goes to waste, because people who make decisions are afraid of occasionally being wrong.

And so we've artificially inflated the value of a college degree to the point where most high school kids think "I have to go to college or I won't succeed," even though there's no legitimate reason for that kind of thinking. As a result of that artificially driven demand, the cost of those college educations has skyrocketed, and now we're producing legions of 22-year-olds who are carrying $40,000 of college debt at graduation and find that their degree in whatever - Literature, Music, Art, Psychology, History, Government, Communications, you name it - doesn't make them any more qualified for a job than if they'd spent eight months learning auto body repair at the local technical college or a year as a plumber's assistant. In fact, they're probably LESS qualified.

I don't know how to put the genie back in the bottle, but it's something for a parent to think about before you start writing those five-figure checks so Johnny or Susie can go live in a nice dorm and have faculty teach them the value of "diversity," "tolerance," and the collected writings of Emily Bronte.

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