Monday, December 20, 2010

"What value for a degree?" Part 1: Relative Value

A friend of mine, who teaches at an English-speaking middle school in Hong Kong, recently asked me if I think too many people are going to college (university).

I think about this a lot, since completion and participation targets are often in the PSE news and in policy. I always find it a hard question to answer—partly because answer means asking ourselves about the purpose of a university education, and what precisely it is about university degrees that they are somehow assumed to equip young people with what it takes to succeed (economically) in the world. What is it that makes a university degree valuable and why is this important?

The focus for students, parents and governments is significantly economic, in policy and in practice—something that has become more the case over time as universities have moved towards “massification” (expansion) and more emphasis on private sources of funding (including tuition).

The benefits of post-secondary (and particularly university) education are expected to increase both the prosperity of individuals and the competitiveness of the national economy. So why is it important to question both the "graduation imperative" as economic policy, and the "accessibility" ideal as progressive social policy?

While in the past it was true that people who earned university degrees then went on to have more economic success, this was partly because university education was an elite education. No more than 5 to 10% of the population had a degree, so it was a valuable thing to have. Higher education usually meant training to be part of an elite; for example, the traditional “liberal education” was training for a small, privileged group who would become the “leaders of society” in law, politics and business.

In a sense, we’re now saying that as many people as possible should have an education of this kind, which means that by definition a university degree ceases to be “elite” in the way described, or to provide any value based on scarcity. This doesn’t mean there is no other kind of value—only that a degree will no longer provide the benefits of a scarce commodity (to the extent that it did in the past). It also means that universities are and will be using more tactics to explicitly demonstrate the value of what they offer (marketing, advertising).

In a system in which we rank and label people, a lack of obvious comparative value creates a problem, since we need to differentiate in order to allocate. If in the past the university degree acted as a filtration mechanism or a stamp of elite approval, it was the case that you had to have money, family/social connections, and/or a lot of smarts and savvy to get one. But how does this “filtering” happen when everyone gets a degree?

The cynical (or perhaps realistic) answer is that a relatively “elite” group will still form, and it does; filtration still happens because our system is driven by a capitalist economic model that works as a hierarchy driven by competition. People are ranked (using grades, for example), and it’s understood that this is more or less a zero-sum game. And some people still start out with far, far more than others when it comes to securing the highest spots in that ranking.

Yet most education systems are premised at least to some extent on the concept of meritocracy, the idea that people succeed based on “merit” or “excellence” alone, rather than through forms of extrinsic (often material) advantage. Though we have plenty of examples to support the idea that meritocracy functions fairly—e.g. working-class kids who “make good”—the wealthier and well-connected students still tend to get the best jobs in the current climate, no matter how many others may have university degrees. And from the inside, it tends look like this is because of differences in cultural, social and economic capital, rather than "merit" alone.


Coming up soon, in Part 2! Does education have an inherent value in this context? Human capital, personal 'investment', and unequal/unexpected 'returns'.

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