Students Lose When Colleges Exploit State Occupational Licensure

I have an older cousin whose personal motto used to be: If it’s funny, it’s even funnier in a gorilla suit. After he moved away to Hong Kong, I’d hear reports of Loren’s wild parties where, like clockwork, he’d disappear to his room, return in a gorilla suit, and hilarity ensued.

If he hadn’t absconded to Asia, Loren would have become a fan of the Tacoma Rainiers. A few years ago, the minor league baseball team stood on the shoulders of giants by taking the already absurd Internet “Epic Sax” meme – the bopping, showboating fake saxophone player at the center of Moldova’s entry in the 2010 Eurovision Song Contest – and (you guessed it) dressing a dancer in a gorilla suit to perform Epic Sax as a between-innings crowd-pleaser.

I’ve been thinking hard about why Epic Sax Gorilla is so mesmerizing. Is it because the Epic Sax music is super cool? Or that Epic Sax Gorilla is wearing a top hat and sunglasses and wailing away with rhythmic abandon? Or that they gave Epic Sax Gorilla a backup dancer doing even sillier (yet skillful) moves? All of the above, and also because they’re moshing on the stadium roof, mere feet from a precipitous drop. Last summer, the Tacoma newspaper’s origin story about the stunt mesmerized Washington State and prompted an investigation and fine of $56,000 for failing to “ensure that safety devices and means reasonable to prevent fall hazards were used [as] employees were exposed to falls measuring up to approximately 75 feet while performing on the roof of Cheney Stadium.” Thus endeth Epic Sax Gorilla.

Regardless of whether you think Epic Sax Gorilla worthy of regulation, there are lots of jobs that are. You wouldn’t want doctors, nurses, or even tattoo artists practicing without signoff from an appropriate authority. The percentage of jobs requiring state licensure or certification has grown from approximately 5% in the 1950s to nearly a quarter of the workforce. So when we talk about the gap between education and employment, we’d be remiss in not talking about the approximately 1,100 occupations determined by at least one state as meriting regulatory time and attention.

State licensure itself has received quite a bit of time and attention recently. Critics have pointed out that some licensed professions may not require state protection in order to safeguard public health and well-being. Why do 21 states require a license in order to work as a travel guide? While scissor-wielding haircutters could do harm, what’s the argument for hairstyling and braiding? And while I’ve been in a few poorly designed Florida condos, should you really need a license to be an interior designer in Florida? Beyond the egregious cases, occupational licensure is inconsistent. Of 1,100 licensed occupations, fewer than 60 are regulated in all 50 states. Geographic mobility appears to be a casualty; if you have a license, you’re 24% less likely to move to another state.

But the biggest injustice is that licensure typically requires not only passing a state-approved test, but also completing a designated postsecondary education program, and probably a degree. All those licensed interior designers in Florida? They’ve not only passed the National Council of Interior Designer Qualifications (NCIDQ) exam, they’ve also earned interior design degrees approved by the Council for Interior Design Accreditation (preferably bachelor’s, but CIDA has graciously grandfathered in previously approved associate’s programs).

Without state requirements, many professional degree programs in licensed occupations would disappear, or be forced to slash prices. Law school is a good example. 46 states require a JD degree from an ABA-accredited law school in order to take the bar exam. If states relaxed these rules, how many students would voluntarily pay $49,000 annually for three years to attend a private law school (or over $40,000 to attend an out-of-state public)?

It might still work out if every law school graduate passed the bar exam. But there are a number of law schools with ultimate bar pass rates below 70%. While nightmare for-profit law schools like Arizona Summit (50% pass rate – now teaching out) and Florida Coastal (65%) are in this group, many are non-profit, including Pontifical Catholic at 55%, Inter American at 57%, Thomas Jefferson at 64%, and Elon at 66%. At nursing schools, it’s not uncommon for 20% or more of students to fail the NCLEX. Many nursing schools with associate’s degree programs have pass rates in the 50s and 60s.

When I attended law school, passing the bar exam was viewed as a student’s responsibility. For the most part, faculty taught what they were interested in, some of which may have been relevant for the bar exam. After graduating, students paid another thousand dollars for a bar review course (it’s now close to $4,000). I’ve always thought that for licensed occupations that require both a degree and passing a test, it’s unfair that postsecondary institutions are having their cake and eating it too i.e., benefiting from state-mandated enrollment and tuition revenue while holding the test at arms length, as though it were something alien.

It’s particularly unjust in occupations that pay less, like teaching. The Praxis elementary education content test – a K-12 teacher exam utilized by 18 states – has a first-time pass rate of 46%. As a result, even though they’ve jumped through every hoop demanded of them by their alma mater, every year tens of thousands of aspiring teachers find themselves locked out of their profession of choice. It’s particularly troubling for diverse students. According to the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), while 75% of white candidates eventually pass this Praxis test, only 38% of African-American candidates and 57% of Hispanic candidates do. In a profession that, nationally, is only 20% diverse, 8,600 candidates of color are kept out of K-12 classrooms each year because the test is a separate barrier to work.

I’m not suggesting we abolish licensure exams. In fact, outside of healthcare, I agree with Matt Yglesias: for occupations deemed to warrant state licensure, do away with educational requirements and just require candidates to demonstrate competencies. But this would require fighting and winning battles in each state, in each profession. So here’s a more realistic idea: For degree programs required for licensed professions, passing the test must be viewed as a part – the most important part – of the program itself. In a world where the employment imperative reigns – where the job is the raison d’être for enrolling in the vast majority of postsecondary programs (and nearly all professional degree programs) – it’s not right that colleges and universities can take government money to ostensibly prepare students for licensed professions, while continuing to maintain that the test and passing the test are separate. That’s a dictionary definition of bait and switch.

Colleges and universities purporting to prepare students for careers in licensed profession should be held responsible for ensuring students attain licensure. How could this work? At a minimum, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) should forbid colleges and universities from counting students in these programs as graduated or completed until licensure is attained. But I have a hankering to see ED require Title IV-eligible institutions to continue delivering educational services for a reasonable period of time until the “graduate” passes the exam. In effect, higher education institutions shouldn’t be able to graduate students in these programs until licensure is attained. This would encourage many schools and programs to reverse engineer their degree programs from the licensure exam, and make “test prep” the province of the university – not an epic, separate thing run by a commercial provider.


While I’ve been critical of colleges and universities that partner with tuition-pay coding bootcamps (allowing new and recent graduates the privilege of spending another $10,000 on training that could have been built into bachelor’s degree programs if schools were organized and incentivized differently), at least there’s an excuse in the unregulated coding case – namely that colleges and universities aren’t well-situated to understand the exact technologies employers are seeking for entry-level positions. While it’s odd to make this argument for introductory standard Web development curricula, it may still pass the laugh test.

What’s doesn’t pass the laugh test is the notion that colleges and universities cannot directly and specifically prepare students for professional licensure exams. Higher education has benefited greatly by maintaining that grubby, professional exams are somehow separate from high-minded degree programs. But for millions of students, it’s been an epic rip-off, and going on for far too long. In addition, universities’ historic hand waving at licensure also perpetuates the unsustainable myth that they are not ultimately responsible for helping graduates get good jobs. But to paraphrase Upton Sinclair, it is difficult to make universities understand a thing when their livelihood depends on them not understanding it…

The truth is that licensure exams are quite static, and faculty responsible for these degree programs know or could know exactly what’s on the tests. As a result, education and teacher prep programs at colleges and universities have no excuse not to align much more closely with the Praxis and other state licensure tests. That or close up shop, because they're not doing any favors for aspiring teachers who fail. The same is true for preschool programs, law schools, nursing schools, interior design programs, and dozens of others.

In the wake of Operation Varsity Blues, there’s been productive commentary on the complexity of the college admissions process and how complexity discriminates against those who most need a leg up in favor of the well-heeled. Keeping licensure exams separate from the degree programs that states (in their infinite wisdom) also require adds unnecessary complexity on the other end, as graduates seek to enter the workforce. Colleges and universities offering professional degree programs have been having a grand old time, wailing away like Epic Sax Gorilla. Governments that care about what’s safe and what’s right ought to rein them in.