There are three relatively novel ideas to increase efficiency and reduce costs in college that I have promoted, largely to no avail, in recent years. First, I have called for colleges to have “skin in the game,” that is have to share the losses to taxpayers from defaulted student loans. That would incentivize colleges to be careful in matching student desires with capabilities and reality. Second, I have called for Income Share Agreements, a new way to finance college attendance reducing financial risks to students, one that has gained some limited acceptance and may yet be important in the future.

But I have been all but completely ignored in my call for a “National College Equivalence Test (NCET), where students performing well on a broad based fairly rigorous test could be granted a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent. (See this space for July 2, 2018). A student from my early teaching days, Clarence Page, a distinguished Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Chicago Tribune, citing me, recently spoke favorably of a college GED, a way students with brains and ambition but limited formal education and resources could demonstrate that “I have the same capabilities of a typical college graduate and passed the NCET with a score of X.”

Following up on Clarence’s Tribune column, Steve Bertrand of Chicago radio station WGN interviewed me about the Collegiate GED. One listener then wrote me, “ I have no college education and am frustrated at 58 because I’m intimidated by the idea of walking into a university with all the scientific work I have done.” I would speculate the listener had gained a good deal of skill in the sciences from either the work he had performed and/or knowledge he gained through reading and other non-school ways of learning. If the body of knowledge accumulated equaled that of typical college degree holders, why shouldn’t he be eligible for a bachelor’s degree?

Universities live off of testing. Admission to college is large based on high school grades and tests like the SAT or ACT. High school grades, in turn, are largely determined by test results. Professors give grades to students in colleges largely based on testing, and admission to graduate and professional schools is largely exam-determined (the LSAT, GMAT, etc.) To become a lawyer, CPA, Foreign Service Officer, senior police or fire official, Certificated Financial Analyst or a whole variety of other occupations, you must pass one or more state or nationally administered tests.

Like most important examinations, the college GED test would have to be pretty long, say at least three hours. It would include a general education component, asking questions that most college educated persons should be able to answer, in many fields—history, political science, literature, science, mathematics, etc. It might test for critical thinking skills and writing ability by incorporating into the exam a test like the Collegiate Learning Assessment. Finally perhaps 25 percent of the test should be based on more intensive knowledge of a specific field (such as what a college major usually provides), where the test taker picks the field on which to be questioned.

The test could be scored from 0 to 100, with some selected passing value, say 70, which if achieved would lead to the award of a bachelor’s degree. But the student scoring 95 could brag about that. Indeed, it would be nice if ALL students wishing a bachelor’s degree, including those attending college, take the test (colleges could still award degrees independent of the test results if they so chose.) The test scores would provide all sorts of useful information. A bright non-college educated student could brag “my score on the College GED was higher than the average of Princeton graduates.” Accrediting agencies could evaluate schools partly on the basis of their average College GED test scores.

As I envision it, individuals of any age could take the test, and, theoretically at least, a few very bright 18 year old individuals could completely forego college and perhaps enter the workforce early. We need cheaper, less wasteful ways of certifying competence to enter the workforce than requiring students to spend $100,000 or more on a piece of paper—a college diploma.