“But doctors need college degrees!”

Every time I write something about college, a reader will comment that “doctors, lawyers and certain types of engineers must have degrees.”

Enough is enough. I don’t think this is a good argument, but it’s so common that I want to address it once and for all.

Yes, doctors need degrees. They need degrees because the law says they need degrees. They need degrees because a politician who has not practiced medicine forces them to get the degree. I readily concede this fact, but it is not relevant to a general claim that college degrees are a waste of time.

Why the reductio ad doctorum falls flat

Here are the three main reasons I believe this sort of reductio ad doctorum is not useful in the college degree question:

  1. Most people do not want to be doctors. You cannot justify college degrees for everyone on the grounds that a small handful of positions require them. The conveyor-belt approach to life is a recipe for failure. People have different goals, competencies, and interests, and the idea that a broad tent could ever fit them all is ridiculous.
  2. Medicine is a legally protected industry. It is not relevant at all to discussing the majority of industries which do not have legal restrictions on employment. If I said that “you can leave your job whenever you want” it would be bad to reply “no! In the military, they would court-martial you.” The simple fact is that in general in the private sector, you are able to quit your job when you want.
  3. That doctors “need degrees” now is not evidence that the degree would be the only way to become a doctor in a free market for certification. We don’t have a free market now so we cannot make claims about the value of the degree as such, only that it is a legal requirement now. I actually look forward to the day where there are competing certification methods and business models in medicine. I suspect that will go a long way to reducing death by medical error.

Exception obsession

I think this kind of argument is a classic case of missing the broad point by searching desperately for one exception, which is not even really an exception at all as I showed in point number two.

Businesses in an open market do not literally require college degrees. There is a difference between expressed preferences like “we require a degree” and the revealed preference underneath which is “we want someone we trust who creates more value than they take out in salary.” All a would-be employee needs to do is demonstrate the latter and they’ve got the job.

And the exciting thing is that more and more companies are openly expressing now that they don’t require degrees. This is just the beginning of a long trend to come. Don’t miss out by obsessing over exceptions.