While the labor market rewards good grades and fancy degrees, most of the subjects schools require simply aren't relevant on the job. Literacy and numeracy are vital, but few of us use history, poetry, higher mathematics or foreign languages after graduation. The main reason firms reward education is because it certifies (or "signals") brains, work ethic and conformity.
"Conformity" being the biggest of those three.
Almost everyone pays lip service to the glories of education, but actions speak louder than words. Ponder this: If a student wants to study at Princeton, he doesn't really need to apply or pay tuition. He can simply show up and start taking classes. As a professor, I assure you that we make near-zero effort to stop unofficial education; indeed, the rare, earnestly curious student touches our hearts. At the end of four years at Princeton, though, the guerrilla student would lack one precious thing: a diploma. The fact that almost no one tries this route — saving hundreds of thousands of dollars along the way — is a strong sign that students understand the value of certification over actual learning.
Using the Army as an example - they want to see a diploma. They don't care what subject. It could be Underwater Manchurian Basket Weaving. It could be on Technical Lighting and Sound in the Pornography Industry. They don't give a shit as long as they see you have a diploma.
Well, then, a lot of troops go to a diploma mill, get a fancy sheepskin, and hang it on their wall. What did they learn? Damn near nothing. But the Army says that if you don't get a diploma you don't get promoted, so they play the game.
I have to head out, so I'll post more on this later. I've got a couple of thoughts brewing.