Education, education, education?

by Chris Bertram on September 9, 2005

Maria’s post about America got me thinking about issues to do with social mobility. Here I want to offer some completely data free speculations, to float a hypothesis for commenters to shoot down if they want to. That hypothesis is that there’s far too much higher education in Western societies and that it constitutes a real barrier to social mobility (and is probably bad for demographics too). To put it in a nutshell: strategies for improving social mobility by getting a broader swathe of the population into higher ed are bound to fail because it is too easy for the middle classes to maintain their grip on access to education. A better strategy would be to take that card out of middle class hands by abandoning the insistence on credentials that aren’t materially relevant to the job at hand.

In a recent scandal in the UK, the head of an NHS trust was fired and prosecuted for falsifying his qualifications. He didn’t have a university degree, but felt the need to claim that he did in order to give himself a fighting chance of getting the top job. Clearly what he did was wrong, but would he have been a better candidate for that job if he had actually acquired a degree? Fifty years ago many jobs: managerial, sales, even being a solicitor (lawyer) could be done be people without degrees. Nowadays many employers won’t even look at an uncredentialled candidate and many roles have been defined so that possession of the right certificates is a formal requirement.

But for many jobs there is no reason whatsoever to suppose that a person with a degree in English literature, philosophy, chemistry or media studies will be any better in-post than someone who never went near a university. Yet today those people are excluded from any possibility of getting into many careers. Ditto, for the most part, careers in politics: Attlee’s cabinet contained real members of the working class who had risen through the trade unions; Blair’s is largely composed of graduates, often law graduates.

The NuLab approach to social mobility and opportunity is to get a wider swathe of the population into higher education, to widen access. I have no doubt that giving more working-class people the opportunity to get into higher education is a good thing in itself, if that’s what they want. But the middle classes are really pretty good at securing advantage for themselves within the education system and, hence, at getting their children ahead in the queue for credentialled jobs. Improving social mobility through improving access to higher education therefore strikes me as a policy that is almost certain to fail. On the other hand, decredentializing the labour market immediately gives a range of people with real talents and abilities and on-the-job experience a chance to do better for themselves.

One objection might be that we (collectively) really need all those graduates and that without them we’ll fall behind in the “global knowledge economy”. But I’m skeptical. We need some such people, but we don’t need people who have spent three years ingesting hogwash lectures about the semiotics of advertising or whatever and have then emerged with their one-size-fits-all 2.1 degree. Many of the people on those degree courses are only on them because they believe they need a degree to get a good job. In many ways it would be better if we waived the credential requirements, got them into the labour market earlier, and saved them the pain of student loan repayments, years of debt, crappy lectures, and so forth.

Another thing to mention is that whilst the possession of credentials has become more and more a necessary condition for career success and high lifetime earnings, it looks like less and less of a sufficient condition. More people are being pushed through the higher ed system with the promise that they will get higher earnings, but very very many of them are not actually doing any better . Unless their studies are of instrinsic benefit to them—which they very well may be—those people are spening years of their lives acquiring tickets to a lottery even though their number is less and less likely to be drawn as the proportion of graduates increases. Those people are simply engaged in pointless and wasteful jockeying for positional advantage.

Of course a massive cut in the proportion of school leavers who go to university would be bad news for one group of people: university teachers. But there’s no reason to keep lots of second-rate universities in business if the common good doesn’t require them. And there would be, I suspect, another great benefit of decredentializing the economy: people wouldn’t have to stay in higher education for years and years just to get hold of a valuable piece of paper. Naturally, people placed under pressure to do so put off having families until they’re done. Those that want to could, in a decredentialized society, reproduce earlier and thereby perhaps ease worries about dependency ratios etc.

(I know that Alison Wolf has been pushing a skeptical line on the value of higher education expansion, though I’m not really familiar with her work. But here’s a link to one of her op-ed pieces . )

{ 2 trackbacks }

Word § Unqualified Offerings
09.09.05 at 7:05 am
Crooked Timber » » Education: more, please
09.10.05 at 4:06 am

{ 86 comments }

1

John 09.09.05 at 5:08 am

I think it’s been pretty well established that, if social mobility were a goal of education policy, then one would invest in early childhood and primary education. It’s far cheaper and makes a much bigger difference.

As to the economic impacts, look at Canada. We have no shortage at all of university graduates in subjects of doubtful utility but we have to import tool and die makers and even plumbers. Surprise, surprise, they earn far more than most university grads.

The other consequence of up credentialling is cred-inflation. A bachelors\’s degree is no longer adequate for most “good jobs”. Now it takes an even more dubiously relevant masters degree (don’t get me going on MBAs). The universities themselves have, of course, taken this to the ultimate level. Even thirty years ago, a promising young acholar could get a position before completing a PhD. Now it’s the minimum requirement. Sometimes this borders on the ludicrous. A friend of mind, who for decades was one of Canada’s top IT strategy consultants, took up a senior position in the IT faculty of a local university. He was required to get a doctorate within a specified period.

2

Tad Brennan 09.09.05 at 6:33 am

related post on Leiter’s site a while ago:

3

abb1 09.09.05 at 6:36 am

In addition to meaningless degrees, it often seems that these days to upgrade the social status one has to become a manager of some sort. So, getting decent education, working hard and becoming a good worker is not enough – middle class folks are pretty good at securing advantage for themselves within the managerial class as well. Normally, you need connections to get there, or, at least, you get there much faster with connections.

4

otto 09.09.05 at 6:39 am

One minor aspect of this is the number of years required for a credential. In the US, you need 7 years of education to become a lawyer, and the third year of law school is a complete waste of time and money, with students taking courses in Italian, history of art, etc. IIRC, the UK government has encouraged/required the number of years of education to qualify as a doctor to be reduced by one. That approach would seem to be available in many other areas.

5

john m 09.09.05 at 6:40 am

Is the result of an approach like this that any education that is not vocational will be largely abandoned if the market starts to only value directly related skills? This would apply just as much to the good universities as the bad ones – why is a well taught English Lit. degree any more useful to the general commercial world than a bad one? If you’re only left with the good universities the elites they propagate will be strengthened which I thought was they very thing you’re trying to avoid. The MBA market is an excellent example of the problem – one from Harvard etc. is far more greatly valued than one from a regional university in the UK but either will do on your c.v. should it be a requirement for job entry. Speaking as someone with a huge amount of experience in interviewing job candidiates for commercial roles at all levels, academic credentials are largely a handy way of culling applicants where job experience or skill sets are not sufficently clearly differentiated. If you remove that baseline simply saying that they should be able to “do the job” the field is too open and ill defined but state they need to be qualified and it’s all back to credentials. Finally, “pointless and wasteful jockeying” almost perfectly sums up my time in university but I wouldn’t have missed a single minute of it.

6

Kevin Donoghue 09.09.05 at 6:43 am

A better strategy would be to take that card out of middle class hands by abandoning the insistence on credentials that aren’t materially relevant to the job at hand.

Assuming employers insist on credentials just to cut down on interviewing, how do you propose to stop them from doing so? This looks to me like a symptom of excess demand for “respectable” jobs.

7

Ray 09.09.05 at 6:46 am

In Dublin, the major bookshops only employ people with a degree.

8

john m 09.09.05 at 6:54 am

Ray makes the point exactly Kevin – if, as an employer, I can hire a graduate to work in a bookshop for the same amount (or very near the same amount) as a non-graduate I generally greatly reduce my risk and effort when hiring – the process of which is a very expensive and progressively more difficult as you move up the food chain.

9

james 09.09.05 at 7:01 am

I think Chris is speaking sense.

I wouldn’t I have gone to University if the expansion of places to 40% of the cohort had not happened. This was great for me, but it absolutely screwed those who did not go. Before then people without a degree could become teachers or nurses or whatever, afterward they couldn’t. Their life options were seriously restricted by the expansion.

“A better strategy would be to take that card out of middle class hands by abandoning the insistence on credentials that aren’t materially relevant to the job at hand.”

It’s easier said than done. There are two aspects to this: teaching and nursing qualifications are “materially relevant” even though these professions have recently done all graduate and this barrier didn’t used to be there. The effect isn’t all from degrees being used automatically as a filter, in professions where they’re not neccessary.

John makes a good point about cred-inflation, but this isn’t just about Universities. The real expansion here (at least in the UK) are all sorts of professional qualifications springing up for people to do after they’ve graduated; such as professional marketing qualifications, or financial services qualifications, or so on. This isn’t anything to do with Universities or higher education.

I think one (partial) solution would be to design parallel paths to these for non-graduates. In the UK you can still become a lawyer without a degree or an accountant without a degree. If the government supported access to these professional qualifications that are studied while on-the-job, some of the advantage gained from a degree would break down.

10

John Emerson 09.09.05 at 7:04 am

I’m in (unaccustomed) almost total agreement here. Ivan Illich crusaded on this issue a generation ago, to no avail, as far as I know.

Self-taught uncredentialled engineers are not uncommon. They often appear early on in cutting-edge areas (e.g. computers) which, once normalized or routinized, ultimately hire only the credentialed. (But the brother of a friend was recently hired out of the 10th grade in high school by Bill Gates). Once credentialization sets in, the self-taught are frozen in their positions and cannot change jobs or be promoted. (Ironically, often the boss, founder and owner would be unhirable.)

I’ve been told that there has even been a special study of uncredentialed bridgebuilders. Because of their vulnerability, they are ultra-careful about safety factors. The Tacoma Narrows bridge which failed so spectacularly, by contrast, was a technical tour de force by an expert. Two of the bridges here in Portland OR were built by a man whose Czech credentials were apparently fake (there was a New Yorker story about the man).

There was even a self-taught doctor who faked it for a couple of years without disaster.

In the US, but not Britain I don’t think, there’s been a proliferation of bogus specialties and sub-specialties. For example, my sister is trained in substance-abuse counseling and worked in that area for years, and has more recently been working for some time with the mentally ill who are not substance abusers. But to change jobs she’d have to go back to school and get a new degree, costing her a full year of schooling, even though an employer desperately wants to hire her based on her observed performance.

One outcome of the proliferation of practical subspecialties in the US is that a BA in philosophy, English, or history is virtually unemployable except in entertainment, the restaurant business, and non-profits. (Journalism is a credentialed specialty. HS education is a credentialed specialty).

Too uppity for blue-collar work, too uncredentialled for anything else, the humanities BA is like a HS dropout. (Ironically, one of the other areas where BA’s are employed is at the lowest level of custodial care — for the developmentally-disabled, mentally-somewhat-ill, ex-cons, drug-rehab, etc. Humanist free spirits working as soft jailors).

At some level, the bachelor’s degree still functions to mark class, producing among other things impoverished unemployables who are in some sense middle class, and resentful but prosperous non-collegiate blue-collar types who succeeded materially without college. (This is where the Republican “elitism” charge comes from).

Education CAN serve to bring people up from below into the real middle class, and education DOES help people who are born middle class to stay that way, but credentialization also does impede upward movement by those who couldn’t or didn’t go to school, and usually does NOT help people move up from below if the degree is in an impractical humanities area. A BA in English is not worth $20,000 in debt, or decades of scrimping by the student’s parents.

(More at my URL).

11

Russell Arben Fox 09.09.05 at 7:04 am

Chris–excellent post, and I couldn’t agree more. It seems to me that the truly serious social democrats and reformers have been saying this for years: that the global, “meritocratic,” information economy just redistributes the relatively small amount of opportunity and privilege at the top; what is really needed is an economy which empowers (through unions, decredentialization, etc.) and thus makes more mobile vocational, trade, and blue-collar work. Of course, as you note, the consequences of such a re-orientation in our thinking for the academy would be profound, especially for people like myself who have spent their careers teaching at small, regional state universities. How do I (or can I) justify the unavoidable concomitant of my intellectual work–namely, the injection of relatively elitist presumptions (readily embraced by the sort of students whose class has already primed them to accept such) into a local economy that really needs, more than anything else, higher wages, fairer trade, and more unions, all of which credentialization (and the class distinctions it sets up) tends to debase? The answer is: not easily.

12

Chris Bertram 09.09.05 at 7:04 am

john m and others – I’m not sure that I understand why you think the fact that some behaviours are rational given existing incentives counts as any kind of argument for a socially wasteful incentive structure. But perhaps I’m misunderstanding you.

13

Russell Arben Fox 09.09.05 at 7:06 am

Incidentally–John Emerson’s invocation of Ivan Illich is dead on. I would also recommending looking at what Christopher Lasch and Neil Postman wrote on this matter.

14

John Emerson 09.09.05 at 7:18 am

WHile asking for a degree can make hiring easier, in many cases (for example my sister’s case) educational qualifications are written into job descriptions, often by law, so that the employer has no option.

There’s a tremendous amount of politics at the State legislative and Congressional levels as various groups try to bend legal credentialization requirements to their purposes. In the mental health area this goes in tandem with governmental rules as to which treatments for which conditions are regarded as worthy of insurance payment.

College education departments have a pretty effective monopoly on HS teaching and milk the students pretty aggressively (mushy $75 textbooks, etc., etc.) Teachers are also required to continue to take classes to maintain credentials or advance in the field. Educationists have acieved virtual autonomy and what they teach is often only distantly related either to subject matter or teching skills. Much the same is a true in social work.

The impracticality and intellectual feebleness of the content of vocational courses does not lead to humility among their teachers. A PhD friend of mine going for an ESL MA was told in no uncertain terms that his PhD counted for nothing, and he had to take the same Mickey-mouse courses in his PhD area (cultural studies / anthropology) that everyone else did.

15

John Emerson 09.09.05 at 7:27 am

There’s a big, enormous irony in American liberal equality-through-upward-mobility. Basically individuals are helped without necessarily changing the overall situation. There always will have to be people driving trucks, working in daycare centers, working in restaurants, etc. — to say nothing of skilled non-college workers like plumbers and electricians.

Another irony in American populism is that abstractly many claim to believe in absolute equal opportunity, but in fact everyone wants their own kids to have the best chances possible. If this leads to investment in education and skill-development, it’s a good thing, but it can lead to a genuine unwillingness to educate those who might compete with your own kid. I think that this is a big secret factor in American politics, above all in the South (I believe that Michael Lind’s “Made in Texas” speaks of this.)

16

Harry 09.09.05 at 7:37 am

Alsion Wolf’s argument (in her book — I haven’t read the link) is that credentialism is an example of wasteful positional competition. She is also sensitive to the political dynamic underlying it — after a critical mass of the cohort is going to college, everyone else starts demanding that the government make it more widely available because they see their own kids being otherwise left behind. So expanison is politically popular — almost irresistable to politicians. This is one reason why otherwise sensible-ish leftish politicians back it. She is also very good on the immediate costs of credentialling — her story of the way successive governments tried to shore up vocational education in the UK in the 80’s and 90’s is genuinely scandalous.

But, neither she (in her book) nor you identifies what I think (again, conjecturing wildly) is one of the worst opportunity costs of providing university places to 50% of a cohort. This is that many people who otherwise would have become good secondary school teachers at age 22/23 instead become good (or not so good) University teachers at age 28/29. I read recently that there are 1 million university teachers in the US. Suppose that we reduced university uptake by a half. Its a reasonable guess that 20% of the released labour (100,000 people) would be attracted to teaching, and would be among the strongest teachers in the workforce. I think about the 8 best teachers I had in secondary school, and I’m convinced that if they’d been in my generation they’d all have become college teachers, and done much less good in the world. If Wolf is right that this is an instance of wasteful positional competition, presumably the government could capture some of the released resources and direct them toward disadvantaged students (eg by providing good teachers with strong financial/working conditions incentives to stay in or move to schools with high concentrations of disadvantaged kids). Of course this would take government will.

17

john m 09.09.05 at 7:40 am

Chris,

I think perhaps you are misunderstanding what I was getting at but this is due to necessary brevity of what I said rather than any fault on your part. If you’re suggesting that it is irrational to want a surgeon or engineer to have an MBA , I completely agree but I, for one, would be not rushing a drive across any suspension bridge designed by a self taught engineer or to go under the knife of a self educated surgeon, however clever they are. I also have a firm and long held distaste for the promotion of education solely as a means for becoming employed.

18

Steve LaBonne 09.09.05 at 7:48 am

The overexpansion of higher education also creates a moral hazard for secondary schools. Once upon a time, a graduate of a good high school was expected to be the recipient of a pretty sound general education. Now, we find many universities having to spend most of the first two years teaching students what they should have learned in high school. The ability and willingness of the universities to do this is what allows the high schools to continue to f*** around instead of getting their act together.

19

Slocum 09.09.05 at 7:52 am

There actually are a lot of high paying ‘jobs’ in the U.S. that don’t require a university degree — you don’t need a degree to work in the building / construction trades. There are a lot of people out there making very good money at these jobs (even when not unionized), and many of the ones making the most have risen through the ranks to own and operate their own businesses.

Independent businesses, in general, remain a great way to get ahead without paper qualifications. Bill Gates, after all, was a college dropout and, as such, probably wouldn’t be able to get an interview at Microsoft now, but lack of a degree didn’t prevent him from founding MS.

I’d suggest that one way to make credentials less critical in a society is to make sure the barriers to entrepreneurship are low.

20

John Emerson 09.09.05 at 7:53 am

I, for one, would be not rushing a drive across any suspension bridge designed by a self taught engineer… however clever they are.

This is not a hypothetical. Two of the main bridges in Portland, OR, as I said, were built by self-taught engineers, and they’ve been in continuous use for at least 60 years. (The same man also built a bridge in NYC, and as I said, self-taught engineers are actually a demographic within the profession.)

One reason credentialization is so strong in education and social services especially might well be the fact that, by contrast to the engineering case, it’s actually not completely certain what the best methods are. Educationists believe that they are experts the way that engineers are, but there are reasons to doubt that (despite their many years of schooling)they really are.

21

Slocum 09.09.05 at 8:01 am

Once upon a time, a graduate of a good high school was expected to be the recipient of a pretty sound general education.

On the other hand, SAT scores are now at an all-time high. My sense is that it used to be possible to be kind of a goof-off in high school and then ace the SATs (based on ability to do well on IQ-test style questions) and still get into an elite university. In fact, I did pretty much that 25 years ago.

Now, it’s a very different deal–you have to work your butt off in high school (with a high GPA and multiple AP courses) to have much of a chance and the ‘aptitude’ style test questions (friendly to high-IQ slackers) have been de-emphasized in favor of ones focused on actual learning.

22

Slocum 09.09.05 at 8:10 am

If Wolf is right that this is an instance of wasteful positional competition, presumably the government could capture some of the released resources and direct them toward disadvantaged students (eg by providing good teachers with strong financial/working conditions incentives to stay in or move to schools with high concentrations of disadvantaged kids). Of course this would take government will.

Government will? No, it doesn’t work that way over here. No government officials decide how many university graduates there should be nor how many university instructors (nor for that matter how many primary and secondary schools and instructors). Central planning of that kind is simply out of the question. Nor does the federal government have much control over credentials and licensing–these are issues handled by the states. And Washington doesn’t even provide much education funding (K-12 or university level) so it doesn’t even have that lever to pull.

23

Steve LaBonne 09.09.05 at 8:15 am

On the other hand, SAT scores are now at an all-time high.

Has anybody done the calculation to see if that’s really true when you adjust for the “recentering” of scoring that the College Board did some years back?

But there is much truth to what you say, and unfortunately it makes a further contribution to inequality. The upper-middle-class kids headed for “elite” colleges not only go to expensive high schools payed for by the large tax bases of their wealthy communities, but also get all kinds of extra help outside the school, to help them ace their SATs. Those who chose their parents less wisely too often get much less than what a high school diploma should signify. This really hurts them in competing for high-end blue-collar jobs- eg. being an auto mechanic working on today’s electronics-stuffed cars- that require extensive skills which need to be supported by a solid base of literacy and numeracy.

24

monboddo 09.09.05 at 8:15 am

I agree with Chris’s point, to a point, in that many jobs where a degree is demanded in fact could be performed well by a person without a degree. I am reminded of stories of my grandmother, who was a fine high school teacher with exactly one year spent at a university. But I think you’ve overlooked a second–and big–reason for demanding a degree, at least in the US: the collapse of the traditional high school (Steve L. above makes much the same point). Once, before WW2, a high school degree signaled to an employer that the degree holder possessed a solid education and could write, do math, etc. In fact, many articles from the period discuss whether a “college man” is even qualified for working in the business world, the assumption being that a high school graduate would possess all the requisite skills, not only for work, but even for managerial positions. But, for a lot of reasons, now the average US high school is so bad that a college degree is demanded just to show the recipient possesses basic literacy skills. In other words, you can’t deemphasize university without re-emphasizing secondary education.

25

Kieran Healy 09.09.05 at 8:19 am

Here’s an excerpt from Randy Collins’ book _The Credential Society_, which made something like this argument in the late 1970s.

26

Tom T. 09.09.05 at 8:29 am

At least in the U.S., the growth of credentialing requirements would seem to be a supply-side phenomenon: Employers can impose these requirements because there are a lot more job-hunters with these degrees than there used to be. In an earlier era, when college access was much more limited, firms could not easily require a college degree for managerial and sales jobs because they wouldn’t be able to find enough qualified applicants. Decades of the GI Bill, student loans, community-college expansion, need-blind admissions, etc. have increased the pool of credentialed people to the point where employers can easily impose such requirements and still find enough qualified applicants. There’s a tipping-point element, too, I think; at some point, once enough people have come on board with college degrees, it becomes normal to think of those positions as requiring such a degree. Indeed, it becomes an easy method for screening applicants; when confronted with a pile of resumes or applictions, the hiring authority can make a quick first cut, by throwing out anyone lacking a degree.

Similarly, as a broader pool of people go pre-med or pre-law, the professions seek to protect their privileged status by raising the entry requirements and making them more onerous. Hence, it’s now almost impossible to become a lawyer in the US without attending law school, and physician residency requirements grow longer and more complex.

There’s no easy way to reverse the trend from the supply side, however. As a technical matter, one could simply choke off the availability of student loans; with fewer people able to go to college, employers would have to start considering whether they really need someone with a B.A. for this managerial position, if a high-school graduate would do just fine. As time went on, more positions would of necessity open back up to the uncredentialed. The obvious problem with this approach is the transition; a lot of people would be stuck in the middle, lacking degrees in a job market that has not yet adjusted to absorb them. As this pool of people would be disproportionately lower-income, such action would be politically impossible.

27

john m 09.09.05 at 8:29 am

I wasn’t suggesting that the example was hypothetical – I was trying to point out that in many cases credentials effectively exist as proof of training and cases of individual excellence are just that – outside of these cases, as an employer (in any fashion) how do you judge somebody’s competence? For instance, how would you react to this:

“Morning everyone, and welcome aboard this Airbus 300 flight from New York to Paris. I’m Captain Merchant and you’re in good hands – I’ve been teaching myself with Microsoft’s flight simulator for over a week now….”

Silly, I know, but how does a wider, imperfect, market system determine competence in the absense of credentials and, an important point, where a person’s capacity to perform so many jobs cannot be easily judged prior to appointing them? Look what happens when you elect them to the role….

28

LizardBreath 09.09.05 at 8:47 am

Silly, I know, but how does a wider, imperfect, market system determine competence in the absense of credentials and, an important point, where a person’s capacity to perform so many jobs cannot be easily judged prior to appointing them?

That’s sort of a different issue, though. There are jobs that require specific training, (pilot, doctor, lots of others) and it’s perfectly reasonable to want people holding those jobs to either have been trained or to demonstrate that they have the knowledge they would have had if they had been through the training. This is different from the current requirement for many, many jobs that applicants have a undergraduate degree in something, however unrelated to the subject matter of the job.

29

Slocum 09.09.05 at 8:55 am

Has anybody done the calculation to see if that’s really true when you adjust for the “recentering” of scoring that the College Board did some years back?

Yes, I believe so — and also keep the ‘Flynn Effect’ in mind here:

http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/FLYNNEFF.html

Note, too, that the average SAT scores are at an all time high EVEN THOUGH a far greater percentage of high-schoolers take college entrance tests now (and go on to higher education) than in previous generations. So it’s not just about rich kids in private schools and elite public high-schools and being drilled at expensive SAT prep courses–the scores have gone up even as the pool includes a greater and greater percentage of middle-class and working-class kids (middle-class in the US rather than UK sense of the term).

All-in-all, it’s really hard to make the case that U.S. high-school grads are getting dumber and dumber over time.

30

washerdreyer 09.09.05 at 8:57 am

This is a slightly different question, but I’ve also often wondered why one has to have an undergraduate education to attend many graduate or professional schools. I’m sure people would be less prepared coming straight out of high school, but I’m not sure how much less.

31

Matt McGrattan 09.09.05 at 8:59 am

As LizardBreath says, there’s a huge difference between credentials as proof of highly specific knowledge necessary for the performance of a particular job, and the kind of “a degree, any degree” demands made by many employers.

It seems particularly egregious to require degrees now that, in the UK, tuition fees have become a significant issue for poorer students and where effectively people who in the past may not have gone to university now do go and get themselves into debt. Not because of a love of learning, or a desire to discover more about a particular subject, nor to acquire specialist skills but rather, just because they have to.

It ends up being another barrier in the way of the working classes’ social mobility.

32

john m 09.09.05 at 8:59 am

Actually, it’s exactly the issue. Where clear skill sets cannot be easily verified by credentials (good managers springs to mind) employers look to hire graduates etc. not because their education was vocational but because it is indictative (and only indicative) of a certain level of ability in core skills like cognition, literacy etc. If this is not the case, then it is a failure of the particular individual and university that their degree has no reflection on their general abilities. Where it completely falls down in the job market is where credentials are sought that fulfill no purpose at all at any level – which is of course completely idiotic and amazingly common, which I believe where Chris started with this – I’m just unsure if there is a practical alternative.

33

Slocum 09.09.05 at 9:01 am

There’s no easy way to reverse the trend from the supply side, however. As a technical matter, one could simply choke off the availability of student loans

One could simply choke off the availbility of federally guaranteed student loans, but there would be nothing to prevent private lenders (or state governments) from stepping into the breech and making up for that (in fact, student loans from private lenders are already available).

And that’s not to mention if there actually were a way to choke off such availability, the hardship would fall directly on students of limited means and increase inequality (which is precisely the opposite of the goal here).

34

washerdreyer 09.09.05 at 9:02 am

That was probably not a good comment, I have only my own atypical high school to base it on.

35

harry b 09.09.05 at 9:11 am

What slocum says is true. And the problem of access could relatively easily (I mean, relatively easily in theory, not in practice) be dealt with by, say, having a means-tested sliding-scale grant for children from low-income families who meet some high standard of academic preparedness, and making it very clear that is available. In practice this is very difficult, because the middle classes see high public subsidies for their children’s credentials as an entitlement, and one that they can relatviely easily prevent lower class children getting access to. Politicians have a hard time resisting.

36

John Emerson 09.09.05 at 9:14 am

As far as I know, airline pilots are hired based on various mixes of flight school, on-the-job-training, and experience. The credentialization aspect is not as pronounced as it is in, e.g., counseling. It’s more an apprenticeship model.

Just for discussion I’ll throw out this idea: credentialization is most influential where skill differentials are least evident. For example, the NBA has no credential requirement, because it’s always possible to tell whether someone is able to play or not. Bill Gates hired my 16-year-old acquaintance because it’s possible to tell quickly what a programmer is able to do. It seems to be in the mushier fields that credentialization becomes central.

37

Kevin Donoghue 09.09.05 at 9:25 am

Ray: In Dublin, the major bookshops only employ people with a degree.

John M: …if, as an employer, I can hire a graduate to work in a bookshop for the same amount (or very near the same amount) as a non-graduate I generally greatly reduce my risk and effort when hiring – the process of which is a very expensive and progressively more difficult as you move up the food chain.

I can’t see that the non-graduate is a much greater risk, so this looks to me like a method of rationing jobs. (Sure, it cuts the effort of hiring, but only by reducing the number of job-seekers who need to be interviewed.) Assuming that’s all there is to it, the next question is why do low-paid jobs like this need to be rationed, in Dublin of all places? I expect to see this in a recession, not in a booming economy. There is certainly no lack of demand for waiters, plumbers and decorators.

The employer’s behaviour is easy to understand. The puzzle is the willingness of school-leavers to incur a heavy upfront cost (in time, effort and foregone earnings) in order to be eligible to work in a bookshop. Putting it very crudely: why are the middle classes so determined to avoid rolling up their sleeves and taking working-class jobs? I’m certainly not saying they should, I’m just puzzled that they don’t. I know a few people who have put a lot of hard work into becoming IT specialists. In terms of income and job security they would probably have done better in the drain-clearing business.

38

jet 09.09.05 at 9:26 am

I know the topic is about education and employment, but education in itself contributes largely to quality of life. I’ve never looked at the UN’s quality of life formula, but I’m sure that education is extremely important in that calculation.

39

Matt McGrattan 09.09.05 at 9:36 am

It’s certainly true that education contributes to many people’s quality of life. But I don’t see why that education need necessarily come in the form of the relatively expensive and, in fact, rather content-light 3 or 4 year B.A.

40

Howard 09.09.05 at 9:39 am

For several years I have worked at a US non-profit, where I draft budgets, write grant proposals and supervise a staff of eighteen. I have no college degree. I never cease to be amazed at the low level of literacy and lack of critical thinking evidenced by the army of BA and MA holders surrounding me. I am constantly called upon to correct the most basic errors in their written material. Fundamentally, they lack the ability to solve problems, or to acquire the information needed to accomplish it.

In fact, I cannot determine if they simply lack capacity and should never have been conferred degrees in the first place, or if the higher education inflicted on them is responsible for this deficit.

Any suggestions?

41

Slocum 09.09.05 at 9:43 am

The puzzle is the willingness of school-leavers to incur a heavy upfront cost (in time, effort and foregone earnings) in order to be eligible to work in a bookshop. Putting it very crudely: why are the middle classes so determined to avoid rolling up their sleeves and taking working-class jobs? I’m certainly not saying they should, I’m just puzzled that they don’t. I know a few people who have put a lot of hard work into becoming IT specialists. In terms of income and job security they would probably have done better in the drain-clearing business.

Well, of course, few people go to university with the goal of working in a bookshop afterwards. But when they can’t find anything else, working in a bookshop is a refined, genteel sort of poverty, isn’t it? And as for IT — I don’t think many anticipated the outsourcing boom that has depressed wages there. Not to mention, as somebody who does a bit of his own plumbing when necessary–you’d have to pay me a LOT more to spend all my days cleaning out clogged pipes than typing at the keyboard. And lastly, of course, there’s a lot more status in working in IT (and probably even as a bookshop clerk) than in plumbing.

42

chris y 09.09.05 at 9:44 am

One thing this thread hasn’t discussed is the decline and fall of apprenticeship, not only in traditional trades, but in areas such as sales and IT where it would arguably represent a more appropriate approach to training than the academic route. Time was that operational managers and above in many sectors didn’t need to wave degree certificates around because they had learned their business in the business. I suspect that social mobility was greater in those days.

To what extent this reflects the growth of corporate reluctance to invest in training their own staff, and to what extent the conviction that management is a generic skill which is industry independent, I don’t know. I’m not convinced that there is a conscious class conspiracy to restructure the education and labour markets to the detriment of the non-academic, but it certainly has that effect.

43

john m 09.09.05 at 9:46 am

Kevin,

I suspect the bookshop jobs pay better and have much better prospects than you’re assuming – I’m in Ireland but was not familiar with this particular policy – but Ray refers to major bookshops and I assume he means Waterstones etc. who have good manager programmes & career prospects etc. Also (and having done so in the past myself) quite a lot of people actually want to work in bookshops here so there is real competition for places.

As for hiring, it is very important to understand that hiring is a very expensive process and inherently risky so employers will seek to minimise that cost any way they can and that brings us to what John refers to as “mushier” fields – the precise reason that employers look for credentials is because of that mushiness not in spite of it. Rightly or wrongly, they consider higher academic achievement to be broadly indicative of general ability. To be honest though, my experience tends towards the opinion that it’s largely a matter of character, circumstance and luck as to how people do in their jobs.

44

john m 09.09.05 at 9:51 am

Howard,

I have had exactly the same experience and it completely defeats me as to how such people got degrees as, last time I checked, basic literacy was pretty much a standard requirement. In such cases, I lay the blame firmly at the feet of the institute that conferred the degree unless, of course, they got it for $20 on the internet.

45

Ben M 09.09.05 at 9:58 am

I think Monboddo makes an important point: if a high school diploma doesn’t guarantee basic arithmetic, literacy, and maturity, then it’s tough for an employer to find capable employees in the diplomaless set. I don’t have a sense of how expensive/difficult the hiring process is; surely you can judge literacy from reading a resume.

If the hiring were easier, there’d be a benefit to the employer to seek out these students—in theory, the smartest high-school-only people (the smarter poor kids) are smarter, yet demand lower wages, than many college grads (entitlement kids who coast through a BA). This doesn’t work in the current economy, where there’s such a large pool of underemployed people that there’s no premium in requiring a degree. But it did work in the hot labor market of the dot-com bubble. You did see a lot of uncredentialed people—often in or just out of high school—picking up well-paying Web design and coding jobs. My perception was that these self-taught coders were not last-resort hires; they offered better value than the CS or design school graduates who demanded more money for similar skills. So the system sort of worked.

Can the public sector help? Well, the government spends a fortune subsidizing placeholder educations. Supposing there were also a “first job voucher” for employers offering on-the-job training to high school grads? Or opening the full higher-ed grant/loan/scholarship apparatus to people entering trade apprenticeships. And, of course, we need to spend more on early ed and public schools …

46

Howard 09.09.05 at 10:01 am

I think the real point in my last post is only this: If a Masters degree cannot assure us (or an employer) that the candidate has basic literacy, what confidence can we have they are competant in their “field?”

Remeber, George Bush has an MBA. I also recal a study I can’t cite some years ago that more than half of Yale graduates could not perform a basic writing assignment. Again, can’t think, can’t write.

47

Ray 09.09.05 at 10:01 am

I don’t think people get degrees so that they’ll be qualified to work in bookshops, but after graduating they take jobs in bookshops while deciding what to do next. But employers can use it as a way of winnowing applicants, so they do. There’s a whole other post/comment to be written about why graduates apply to bookshops (in particular) in sufficient numbers to enable this practice. In general, though, jobs where your hands are clean and uncalloused at the end of the day have higher social status, for good and bad reasons, than jobs where you get dirty, even if some of the latter jobs pay better.

48

Ray 09.09.05 at 10:07 am

(By major bookshops I meant Waterstones, Hodges Figgis, and the Dubray chain – I don’t know what the policy is in other stores. I’m pretty sure the small bookshop in my local shopping centre has no such requirement. I’d be surprised, btw, if conditions and prospects were significantly better in bookshops than in similar retail outlets)

49

basik litteracy 09.09.05 at 10:11 am

If a Masters degree cannot assure us (or an employer) that the candidate has basic literacy, what confidence can we have they are competant (sic) in their “field?”

I also recal (sic) a study I can’t cite some years ago that more than half of Yale graduates could not perform a basic writing assignment.

Is this a piss take?

50

john m 09.09.05 at 10:21 am

Ray,

Having worked in retail for a number of years, again I point out that the larger operations represent solid career opportunities, bookshops or otherwise.

51

Howard 09.09.05 at 10:24 am

Okay. Okay. I was typing faster than I was reviewing for spelling. Big deal. Besides, this keyboard is sticky.

52

harry b 09.09.05 at 10:33 am

Tha apprenticeship system collapsed in the sixties and seventies (in the UK) partly due to union contracts and government regulation, partly due to collective action problems among capitalists (“why should I train someone who will take their training to my competitor?”). The incredible wasteful expenditure on trying to construct an alternative vocational education track within schools and CFEs was a response to demands by business — narrating and explaining this disaster is the core part of Wolf’s book. The ministers in charge have a great deal to be ashamed of. Business still lobbies hard for an institutionalised vocational track — they want people who are competent and reliable, but not educated “above their station”, and whom they can get on the cheap. I suspect that some of the basically vocational courses that have emerged in the HE in the Uk recently are a response to this demand.

Chris — great post, prompting best discussion here for a while (imho).

53

Ray 09.09.05 at 10:34 am

I agree that there are career opportunities in retail, particularly larger operations. But I think the number of graduates applying to entry-level positions in bookshops, is higher than the number applying to similar jobs in other retail outlets. As you said, quite a lot of people want to work in bookshops.

54

Howard 09.09.05 at 10:35 am

Dear Basik:

I applaud your typing skills.

I still wonder what confidence we should have for institutions of higher learning that fail to instill competency, and if the higher functions we rely on them to police are suffering as a result.

55

Kevin Donoghue 09.09.05 at 10:54 am

I have no college degree. I never cease to be amazed at the low level of literacy and lack of critical thinking evidenced by the army of BA and MA holders surrounding me.

Howard,

Even within academia, students often seem to dump what they have learned shortly after the exams and, even during the year, to keep the contents of different courses in distinct compartments between which nothing flows. So it is quite common to hear of engineering lecturers complaining that the mathematics courses don’t seem to be cover calculus properly, or marketing lecturers wondering how students who have studied microeconomics can know so little about consumer demand.

I don’t know why this is so. Is there a psychologist in the house?

56

Matt Daws 09.09.05 at 11:20 am

On the slightly off-topic issue of Book Shops: I think there is probably a rather large pool of recent graduates who are a bit lost as to what to do in life, but find themselves in a big city, with lots of friends still about, and generally enjoying life. Working in a bookshop is probably very attractive to these people, and Dublin fits that model very well… I did graduate work in Leeds, UK, and there seemed to be a lot of ex-undergraduates who hung around the city working in retail, restaurants etc. because they wanted to stay in an exciting place with friends who were still students: some figures on “first jobs” that I saw seemed to back this up. It was actually bad for the university, as having lots of recent graduates working in such “lowly” jobs didn’t look good in their statistics!

57

Matt Daws 09.09.05 at 11:31 am

Kevin, I think maybe Howard is raising a different issue to you. You seem to be talking about students forgetting specific bits of knowledge, and in general raising common complaints about “module courses” and so forth. However, I think Howard is complaining about a lack of general skills: literacy and critical thinking are not exactly subjects taught on undergrad courses: they are things that students are meant to pick up from the whole course (or, in the case of literacy, probably already have from high school). Still an interesting question, but I think it’s distinct as to why, say, Engineering students forget specific (specialised) ideas from a mathematics course (a closer analogy might be an Engineering lecturer dispairing at the lack of basic numeracy in students who had notionally passed a maths course).

58

dearieme 09.09.05 at 11:36 am

Let me cheer you all up. I once decided that a job applicant might have faked his credentials, so I checked. I found that he had inflated the class of his Bachelor’s degree and that his claim to a Master’s was bogus. He is now an MEP (Member of the European Parliament).

59

soubzriquet 09.09.05 at 11:41 am

dearieme:

well, this person had clearly demonstrated the core political skills, so you should hardly be surprised, no?

60

trotsky 09.09.05 at 12:23 pm

Hey, 7 years of higher education can give you … Michael Brown, as college dropout Matt Welch points out: http://tinyurl.com/avtxw

61

Steve LaBonne 09.09.05 at 12:24 pm

dearime, if your guy wants to emigrate I’m sure there’s a cushy job waiting for him at FEMA.

62

joe o 09.09.05 at 12:28 pm

I think the main problem is the lack of good union jobs. If you could still make a good living working on an assembly line, this would reduce the payoff to college and would reduce the pressure to go to college.

63

John Emerson 09.09.05 at 12:35 pm

In the US coffee shops function like bookstores…. many employees are college grads, though it isn’t a requirement. My 13-y.o. niece is learning the business from my brother, so by the time she’s 18 she could be supervising college grads.

64

soubzriquet 09.09.05 at 12:41 pm

joe o:

It isn’t that simple. For one thing, the unions had a part to play in the dismantling of the apprenticeship system. Also, there is a big difference between negotiating high pay for un- or semi-skilled labour, as in your example, and providing training for skilled labour (in or outside the postsecondary school).

65

Kevin Donoghue 09.09.05 at 12:55 pm

Kevin, I think maybe Howard is raising a different issue to you.

Matt,

Fair enough, he is. Part of what I meant to convey, though, was that when people move to a new environment they frequently neglect to use the skills they already have, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they are just overly conscious of the fact that most of their knowledge is “academic” or “theoretical” – both pejorative terms in most work environments. That seemed to be the process at work in the examples I mentioned. Mathematics and economics are theoretical, engineering and marketing are practical. Some students seem quite inhibited about importing theoretical ideas into a discussion of the real world. Krugman wrote quite a nice essay about that: http://slate.msn.com/id/1916/

But I have some reservations about Howard’s complaint. He may think his BA and MA holders should do more critical thinking. Nearly all organizations claim to encourage that, but very few actually do. These guys may be keeping their critical thoughts to themselves. The exit interview is a great idea for finding out, as long as the departing employee has already been furnished with a reference.

66

Isaac 09.09.05 at 1:06 pm

To point to another Krugman article, in 1996 he wrote a piece predicting what one looking back from 2100 would say about the last 100 years of economic history . He argued that we’d see colleges returning from their current gatekeeping role to their 19th century social role. And that the important sector of the economy would be skilled manual labor. Hence, college unimportant, vocational school important.

More here.

67

Dan Simon 09.09.05 at 1:13 pm

strategies for improving social mobility by getting a broader swathe of the population into higher ed are bound to fail because it is too easy for the middle classes to maintain their grip on access to education. A better strategy would be to take that card out of middle class hands by abandoning the insistence on credentials that aren’t materially relevant to the job at hand.

{sighs, bangs head against wall a few times}

Okay, let’s start with the basics. Whoever came up with the idea that “strategies for improving social mobility” might include “getting a broader swathe of the population into higher ed”, and why?

Here’s a hint: the goal was not pure redristributionism of wealth–or even of comfortable middle-class jobs. That would obviously be far easier to accomplish directly, by fiat. It would also be politically infeasible, not to mention a practical catastrophe, rife with horrible incentives and gross economic inefficiencies. So nobody (okay, nobody outside the hard Left) ever advocated that.

Have we all gotten it yet?

That’s right: the goal was to replace the previously overwhelmingly dominant mechanisms for distributing jobs–nepotism, “old boys’ networks”, political patronage/corruption, and other mechanisms that can be lumped together under the term “connections”–with a mechanism that would be simultaneously more fair and more economically efficient, and would, for those very reasons, result in more social mobility.

And it was a smashing success. Credentialism, for all its faults, has reduced the importance of connections in modern Western societies to such an extent that ostensibly intelligent, thoughtful people can seriously argue that it’s an impediment to social mobility–presumably because they’ve completely forgotten what life was like before credentialism’s heyday, and have somehow convinced themselves that the alternative is some completely vague, unspecified wonderland of equality, fairness and social justice, rather than the near-certain return of the same “connections” that have dominated life throughout most of history, and still do in most of the world today.

Chris, I’m sorry that not as many lower-class people as you would like grab onto the ladder of education these days, to pull themselves up into a life of middle-class comfort. (One contributing factor, I might add, is the deep erosion of academia’s respect for merit and standards, which has made it more, not less “easy for the middle classes to maintain their grip on access to education”, by replacing hard-and-fast rules for success with fuzzy ones that are best learned through immersion in the “right” social environment.) But I guarantee you that taking the ladder away will not help those who were not availing themselves of it. And it will certainly hurt those who were making good use of it. The only beneficiaries will be those who don’t need the ladder in the first place–that is, those with the “connections” to get the inside track on jobs in a world without credentials. Why on earth would you want to help them?

68

Matt Daws 09.09.05 at 1:27 pm

Kevin,

Yeah, okay, that’s interesting: the Krugman article is good, and very pertinent to the idea of “critical thinking”. As a Mathematician, I’m always amazed at how hard people find it to adapt mathematical knowledge: e.g. working out that an engineering problem requires one to integrate some simple function. No doubt, if asked “what’s this integral” they could work out the answer, but asked “solve this engineering problem”, they just cannot pull the mathematics out of the problem. I guess this is a very specific instance of the lack of critical thinking.

69

harry b 09.09.05 at 1:39 pm

Dan Simon,

Over the course of the past century, in the UK, relative social mobility (for men) has hardly changed at all, despite continuing rise in access to HE.

So, no success at all, in fact, in your terms.

Now, the massive increase in HE uptake in the past 20 years in the UK has not, obviosuly, filtered through. Chris’s conjecture is that it won’t make any difference. It will be very hard to tell: if this government’s inroads into child poverty level continue that might have an effect on relative mobility. I’m certainly inclined to conjecture with Chris (and many other here) that, at minimum, expansion of HE is not the most efficient way of improving social mobility.

Jet’s point, by the way, is important, and might point different ways in the US (where universities force students to get an education beyond their major) than in the UK (where I’m inclined to agree with people that the intrinisic value of the education in a narrow and made up major is minimal). It wouold be unfair to dismiss jet’s point (as he himself does, really) by saying the post is about education and jobs — sure it is, but there’s no reaon to care fundamentally about people having a better chance of getting jobs, as opposed to having a better chance of getting a reqarding and flourishing life.

70

jayann 09.09.05 at 1:40 pm

Here’s a hint: the goal was not pure redristributionism of wealth…

Right. But both major sides in this argument face the problem that a pure meritocracy’s impossible to achieve. For that reason (and others) I’d go for the hard left but less utopian end: radically diminish inequality of condition.

(But thank you, Dan. I was getting a bit annoyed.)

Chris

we don’t need people who have spent three years ingesting hogwash lectures about the semiotics of advertising or whatever and have then emerged with their one-size-fits-all 2.1 degree.

or, indeed, philosophy?

71

John Emerson 09.09.05 at 2:03 pm

I think that the nub of the problem comes when you look at a motivated, bright average kid, from a mediocre school and with no significant family support. How well does the present system work for him? What would his wisest choice be? How could the system be better for him?

I believe in cultural enrichment, but for him to go $20,000 in debt for a humanities degree from a midrange-or-lower school strikes me as a bad choice. Even a Harvard English degree wouldn’t necessarily be worth it.

72

SamChevre 09.09.05 at 2:53 pm

One contributor to the increasing requirement of a university degree for many jobs is that many of the more traditional (and cheaper) screens are now off limits due to anti-discrimination law. For example, general tests of literacy, numeracy, and IQ were a common hiring criterion 50 years ago; they are (since Duke Power) no longer legal. College is a fairly good screen for those characteristics, but is much more expensive to acquire. Similarly, general tests of cultural knowledge and behaviour (clothing, personal style, dinner in a formal setting) are quite suspect today; college, again, is a fairly effective screen.

The other problem is a simple political mistake; the value of an education is always partly positional. There will be a significant overlap between the 10% with the most education and the 10% with the best jobs in ANY group. Getting everyone the same education as the best-educated 10% has currently does not (absent any other changes) make them better off in the job market.

The government has several effective means at its disposal to counter-act this tendency.

First, allow some set of tests to be used as criteria in hiring without any legal worries.

Second, stop allowing professional associations with legal monopolies on certain work to set educational requirements for entry to their professions (allow test requirements, like the Law and Medical Board Exams, but require that anyone be allowed to take them).

Third, stop requiring education after 10th grade/age 16; make the last two years of high school optional—this starts a credentialling process in education sooner. Also, give high school diplomas that signify varying levels of achievement, like the old NY Regents diploma.

Fourth, require all state colleges to allow at least half of the credit requirements for a degree to be met by tests that anyone is allowed to take (like the current CLEP tests).

Last, stop subsidizing higher education on a residency basis; subsidize it only for students in the top X% in aptitude. This needs to be done last, so as to complement the shifts in the job market introduced by the above changes rather than anticipate them.

73

soubzriquet 09.09.05 at 4:00 pm

samchevre:

A possible addition to your steps: stop indoctrinating kids with the `necessity’ of university education. I’m not sure what is/was like elsewhere, but certainly when I was going through grade school there was a continuous message that you needed to go to university to get anywhere in life. I don’t recall anyone ever saying `hey, you could make a very good living as a tool and die machinist’. The worst of this is that kids whose real aptitudes lay in trades often never considered them.

74

Ruth 09.09.05 at 4:47 pm

As to the question of why university grads might want to work in bookshops more than in other retail outlets (or why they’d want to work in retail at all), let me suggest:

1) Employee discounts. I’ve worked at bookshops that gave me 30% off what customers paid. If you buy enough books — and university grads might be presumed to be interested in doing so — this can add up.

2) An interesting and educated clientele. Not true in all instances, but definitely in some.

3) An interesting product. If you haven’t tried, trust me: it’s far more fun to sell something you care about than something you don’t.

4) The chance to meet authors at readings. If you’re an aspiring writer yourself, this can tap your hero-worship buttons.

5) Evening hours — often later than at other shops. If you haven’t shaken the college sleep schedule yet, this can help out.

6) Free coffee. The chance to read interesting snippets when you should be shelving. Etc., etc.

The point is, there are lots of reasons well-educated people might want to work around books, even if what they’re doing is selling said books rather than writing, publishing, or teaching them. It seems like kind of a no-brainer to me. And similarly, while I’m not a big fan of inflexible requirements for any job, I see many reasons why bookshops would want to hire people who, well, are well-read and actually care about books. Obviously, this doesn’t mean only college grads: one of the best bookshop employees — and one of the most self-educated people — I’ve ever known is a drop-out friend of mine. But aiming for people with degrees seems a reasonable place to start. I wouldn’t want someone working in an auto parts store who knew nothing about cars, or a toystore clerk who knew nothing about children.

75

Slocum 09.09.05 at 4:54 pm

I think that the nub of the problem comes when you look at a motivated, bright average kid, from a mediocre school and with no significant family support. How well does the present system work for him? What would his wisest choice be? How could the system be better for him?

I believe in cultural enrichment, but for him to go $20,000 in debt for a humanities degree from a midrange-or-lower school strikes me as a bad choice. Even a Harvard English degree wouldn’t necessarily be worth it.

Well, right, and most students in such situations don’t major in English or Philosophy or Art History. They tend to be more hard-nosed about it –they study accounting, or education, or become respiratory therapists, etc.

76

Dan Simon 09.09.05 at 6:06 pm

Over the course of the past century, in the UK, relative social mobility (for men) has hardly changed at all, despite continuing rise in access to HE.

Is this really true? Is social mobility in Britain in 2005 really roughly equivalent to social mobility in Britain in 1905? That sounds to me like either ( a) a searing indictment of modern Britain, quite apart from anything it might say about education; ( b) a radical revision of the common understanding of British society ca. 1905; or ( c) a bit of fancy footwork involving the definitions of “social mobility” and “hardly changed at all”. I’m curious to know which.

I’m certainly inclined to conjecture with Chris (and many other here) that, at minimum, expansion of HE is not the most efficient way of improving social mobility.

Without a doubt, “the most efficient way of improving social mobility”–if that, tout court, is your goal–is simply to impose a regime of strict income and wealth redistribution. Advocates of increasing access to education have traditionally had broader goals, though, such as improving the economy’s overall efficiency by providing good metrics of prospective competence, apportioning jobs more fairly even within socioeconomic classes, and providing real opportunities for members of lower classes to improve their lot in life–regardless of how many people actually choose to avail themselves of them.

Of course, there will be some for whom these benefits are meaningless, and for whom all that really matters is the holy grail of “social mobility”. I assume that such people are simply using “social mobility” as a euphemism for strict redistributionism–that is, the demand that class status be redistributed continuously irrespective of any notion of merit or achievement. Why they would ever have thought educational access to be a plausible means to that end, I have no idea.

77

harry b 09.09.05 at 6:30 pm

Relative social mobility has been (more or less) constant in Britain, Dan. Similarly the US. I don’t know about other OECD countries; except that now, all of them have pretty similar rates of social mobility, apart from Sweden, which has a slightly, but noticeably, higher rate. This is not something about which people who study these things disagree (the significance of it, of course, is something they disagree about).

78

Scott Martens 09.09.05 at 6:54 pm

Oh, nonsense! This is not a choice between cronyism and meritocracy. Even today, access to an elite education in most countries – including the USA – involves enormous amounts of implicit nepotism. I went to an elite private high school on a scholarship because they had to actively search out bright but poor pupils to raise their test scores. Otherwise, the rich kids would have stopped coming. How did their parents get rich? By going to rich schools that got them the kinds of jobs that pay for private education for their dumb kids.

If you want both broad access to education and the elimination of unnecessary cronyism, I should think the solution is quite simple: For every degree a university gives to its graduates, it must grant an identical degree to a randomly chosen non-student. The signalling value of a degree will be simply wiped out. the cost of education can remain high enough that at least most students will have some commitment to their education, the fetish value of a university education will vanish, and the unearned economic gains that come from simply being able to afford to get a degree in basket-weaving or business administration will be distributed more equitably among the population. while those students who actually get an education will only see economic gain from doing so if they genuinely acquire meaningful, employable skills from it.

Never underestimate the power of randomness as a policy strategy.

79

Rich Puchalsky 09.09.05 at 7:12 pm

All of this is in Hirsch’s classic _Social Limits to Growth_.

80

harry b 09.09.05 at 7:16 pm

rich is right. Anyone on this thread who hasn’t read Hirsch (I mean, actually read him, all the way through, carefully..) should.

81

John Emerson 09.09.05 at 7:44 pm

Well, right, and most students in such situations don’t major in English or Philosophy or Art History. They tend to be more hard-nosed about it—they study accounting, or education, or become respiratory therapists, etc.

This is not as true as you think. Through various sources I know of a lot of people from those situations who were less practical.

82

Carlos 09.09.05 at 11:58 pm

Paul Krugman has a nice work on inequelity, education and trade which points a bit on the direction of Chris’s post. Here’s the link http://www.pkarchive.org/theory/Exotic.pdf

83

Bob B 09.10.05 at 12:57 am

A trawl through the BBC news archives for past reports about research on graduate pay in Britain show that on average graduates do relatively well in life-time earnings compared with non-graduates — with the possible exception of those with arts degrees. Might this be one reason for the lack of enthusiasm by some for government policy to increase the percentage of young people going into higher education?

“An international comparison shows that graduates in the UK get a high ‘rate of return’ from higher education, in terms of better job prospects and earnings. The rate of 17% puts the UK ‘in a group of its own’ – compared with 10% to 15% in Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Sweden and the US and 7% in Italy and Japan, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/2371111.stm

“A sharp increase in the number of people getting degrees has not reduced the extra earning power of graduates. The annual education report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development shows graduates are still maintaining a pay gap. . . In the UK, average graduate earnings are 59% above those of non-graduates. “
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/3652376.stm

“Graduates can expect to earn £150,000 more over their lifetimes than those with just A-levels – £250,000 less than previously estimated – a report says. Economists at Swansea University said some subjects – such as the arts – could even mean losses, when fees and living costs are taken into account.”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/4599267.stm

“A degree in an arts subject reduces average earnings to below those of someone who leaves school with just A-levels, a study shows. Graduates in these subjects – including history and English – could expect to make between 2% and 10% less than those who quit education at 18, researchers at Warwick University found.”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/2823717.stm

84

jayann 09.10.05 at 6:55 am

or ( c) a bit of fancy footwork involving the definitions of “social mobility” and “hardly changed at all”.

It’s (c), Dan, but the fancy footwork isn’t I think deliberate.

85

meika 09.10.05 at 9:13 am

randomness is the only fairness, all else is tyranny masquerading as justice, nepotism might be worse than meritocracy, but scrambling in the meritocracy will blind us to the nepotism that drowns cities

86

tk 09.12.05 at 8:39 am

To my shock, the mandarins who do SOX auditing and testing have decided that credentials should be part of the standards. I work in a business where there is no relevant academic training, beyond basic skills. The illegal tax shelter sellers are now making their living telling companies that there should be certain credential standards for certain positions. And these people have no experience or background in the business. SOX will be then end of capitalism, and the beginning of weird bureaucracies.

Comments on this entry are closed.