The Fall of the Gatekeepers: What happens when professors, previous bosses, GPAs, and degrees no longer matter?

From the Newsletter

Jonah is the grips of a high octane college semester as he packs in his final class requirements and catches up on all the college experiences that he missed out during COVID, like intramural soccer, study dates with his girlfriend in the library, and a semester abroad. 

It’s all good things, but managing everything is stressful, so we’re been talking Jonah through his priority list every couple days, like quiz dates and paperwork hurdles. A couple of days ago, we discussed the requirements for an application package for a spring study abroad program, including an email to a professor asking him for a letter of recommendation. 

Steve and I explained that a request for a recommendation should provide the professor with all sorts of useful facts that he or she can throw into the recommendation, like GPAs, classwork, job experience, and plans for the future. You basically want to write the recommendation for the professor, we explained. (One of my grad school professors had me actually write the recommendation for her, and she just signed the letter.) 

But that mini-lesson will probably never be used by Jonah in the future, because most businesses do not require letters of recommendation anymore. When Steve is hiring serious people for serious positions, he isn’t even allowed to call a former employer for a reference. After a couple of decades of legal cases around job references, HR departments, at least at large firms in New York City, have cut them out. 

Instead, bosses like Steve evaluate job candidates based on their CV’s and several rounds of interviews. Theoretically, the person interviews for a job as an individual, with their own merits, skills, and accomplishments, and not because of connections with powerful people. Eliminating references from the job application process is very democratic in a way, even though the real reason they are being eliminating is to ward off lawsuits. 

Jonah had trouble tracking down a reference, because his current professors didn’t want to write one for him before he took the midterms. His previous three semesters were remote, so he has no real connections with any of those professors. And then half of professors are adjuncts, who have moved on to other jobs, and Jonah has no clue where they are right now. He finally found a tenured professor to help him out, but it was quite an ordeal. 

What’s an adjunct professor, you ask? They are low paid, temporary professors, who dominate higher education today. (Here are a few of my articles in The Atlantic on these poor souls.) 

As Jonah finishes off his college experience, it’s very obvious to us how little of this matters. He doesn’t need a good GPA, because after he gets his first position, nobody gives a crap anymore about a GPA. He doesn’t need good grades for graduate school, because Jonah has been trained from birth to know that most graduate degrees, including Masters and PhDs, are a massive waste of time and money. We want him to do well in his classes — hard work and achievement are a good things — but we know it’s of little practical value. 

The Wall Street Journal had a great article this spring on how Master’s Degrees are a scam. Here’s a piece that I wrote for the Atlantic about the horrible job market for PhDs; it’s even worse now. 

A BA is still a valuable piece of paper, but it’s not terribly important to do very well or to go beyond that. That’s a really hard lesson for us Type A, driven parents to acknowledge. But, for most people going into most jobs, a B- average from a mid-level college will pretty much get you where you want to go. Keep in mind that most people do not manage to graduate from college in four years; a six-year graduate rate is considered a success by our government

Tangent: While I do not expect that Jonah will ever need a Masters Degree, he might need extra training at a private school or community school for some sort of certificate. 

The power of the gatekeepers — college professors, college degrees, former employers – is being reduced by self sabotage (adjunct professors can’t be found), by scandal (ridiculous student loan debt for worthless degrees), and by lawsuit (private businesses can’t get references). It’s the slow withering of the supposed meritocracy in our country.