How much is a college education worth?
How much is it worth to have attended, or obtained a degree from, the “right” college?
Rounding out the trio of questions: How much should it be worth?
We can get at such questions through the doorway of credentialism, a term almost begging for widespread use on either the political left or right, or maybe both.
Let’s put this into context first. As human society has developed, more information, and more specialized skills and understanding, has been needed to cope and prosper. A person in the 1600s had to understand far more than a counterpart in the 1100s. Someone living in 1800 simply did not need to know as much, to function effectively, as someone living in 2000. Education has helped create the progress, and it also makes itself more necessary as progress continues. More education helps; higher quality education helps more. Of course, let us not forget this, either: Education can come from many sources (a person educated as a fine college who never picks up another book after graduation likely will be far less well educated than a high school grad who continues to learn). And let us not for get that reputation does not necessarily equal actual quality or performance.
Which is to say, most of the academics I’ve met over the years have struck me as highly intelligent people, but I’ve met a few Ph.D.s I wouldn’t trust to park my car.
Next stop, credentialism: “a concept coined by social scientists in the 1970s, is the reduction of qualifications to status conferring pieces of paper. It’s an ideology which puts formal educational credentials above other ways of understanding human potential and ability.”
In the 1960s, amid the rethinking of many social institutions, an approach (fostered by critics such as Ivan Ilich) “proceeded from the assumption that most if not all of the skills needed to competently perform the work tasks carried out by many professionals could be acquired through practical experience and with much less in the way of formal schooling than is usually needed to obtain the “required” credentials. From this perspective, the disguised purpose of much formal schooling (its ‘hidden curriculum’) is to impart a particular disciplinary paradigm, ideological orientation, or set of values to those seeking formal credentials to work in prestigious or ‘high-status’ fields such as medicine, law, and education. Furthermore, the credential systems developed in a number of occupational areas are part of the ‘collective mobility projects’ of practitioners to achieve a ‘professional status’ that brings with it greater material and symbolic rewards. Thus credentialism is closely associated with strategies of ‘social closure’ (to use Max Weber’s expression) that permit social groups to maximize rewards ‘by restricting access to resources and opportunities to a limited circle of eligibles.”
The concept has been pushed much further since then – as well as the pushback against it.
So, for example, we get employers who hire only from Ivy League schools (this including many parts of the federal government in Washington), no matter the demonstrated knowledge, background, skills and other assets that other applicants might bring. The dynamic reaches out on the other end to parent frantic to get their kids into top-rank schools (leading to the corruption of such events as the 2019 college admissions scandal), and the exploding cost of higher education.
As a character on the TV show The Sopranos said, back around 2000 (on the subject of college admissions), “It’s not about grades any more. It’s all, who you know and how many buildings you give.”
Young adults will find they need more education than did their predecessors, but turning the process into a game of extreme musical chairs will lead to social disaster – not least because many students do not go on to college, do not finish or do not attend prestige schools; and there aren’t nearly enough spaces for everyone if they chose to do so. Better answers are needed.
Joseph Fuller, a Harvard University academic, is among those giving the matter some thought, and serving as a critic (ironically maybe, given his professional perch) of over-credentialism in the job market. In a study called “Dismissed by Degrees,” he and co-author Manjari Raman reported that “Degree inflation – the rising demand for a four-year college degree for jobs that previously did not require one – is a substantive and widespread phenomenon that is making the U.S. labor market more inefficient. Postings for many jobs traditionally viewed as middle-skills jobs (those that require employees with more than a high school diploma but less than a college degree) in the United States now stipulate a college degree as a minimum education requirement, while only a third of the adult population possesses this credential.”
As a matter of politics, this tendency leads to anger at the educated elites (mainly on the right) and a a socially-restrictive movement toward income inequality (on the left), among other results.
Credentialism is a term and an issue in land mine status.