Walt Gardner writes for the Martin Center about a proposal designed to boost the value of a college degree.

It’s old news by now that the wage premium attached to a college degree largely depends on the field of study. Engineering and health care, for example, are far more likely to lead to a faster economic payoff than the arts or religion.

But what if prospective employers were provided convincing evidence that graduates actually learned something of substance while in school? Would that change their minds about whom they hired? If a critical mass of employers demanded proof of student learning, then colleges would be pressured to provide that information. After all, the majority of students report that their main reason for going to college is to attain a job. What good would a college education be if students couldn’t give prospective employers the information they desired?

So goes the argument for the adoption of “the National Collegiate Exit Examination” (NCEE). Proposed by Ohio University economist Richard Vedder, the NCEE would measure students’ critical thinking abilities by requiring them to write a persuasive essay from various sources and solve a variety of math and related problems. The test would last three and a half hours.

At first glance, the NCEE has great intuitive appeal. After all, what’s wrong with testing for literacy and numeracy? But looks can be deceiving. A closer look at college exit exams in general suggests that they are not the easy fix some purport them to be. …

… Nothing can replace motivation and hard work, not even a test. That’s partly why college exit exams, including NCEE, are not a promising solution. They will not change student behavior. There is no reason they will under the present system.

If the number one goal of an exit exam is to restore employer confidence in the value of a degree, colleges’ reluctance to adopt the test is understandable. No single test—no matter how well designed—can do so. Employers will always do far better by examining an applicant’s past experiences, recommendations, and profile. That’s because standardized tests are limited in what they can predict about students’ abilities.