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When I was a doctoral student, faculty would sometimes refer to a college degree as a “lottery ticket” -- an entry ticket to a game where the payoff was variable but might be large, the odds of winning were low, and the outcome random. Another analogy sometimes discussed was that of a high-stakes poker game depending on a mix of skill and luck of the draw, with big winners and big losers. The one that I like is that of the brass ring -- the single golden-colored ring that appears randomly among all the other dun rings for snatching by the lucky person on the merry-go-round passing the ring dispenser at the time, and that could be traded in for a prize. Of course, only those who had secured an advantageously positioned horse on the outside edge of the merry-go-round had a chance at any ring at all, and those who received the worthless dun rings had paid the same price for the chance at the brass ring.

Michael Spence would call this price for a lottery ticket or chance at a brass ring the student’s “signaling cost” to employers -- but remind us that the educational cost and signal value in this “game” may not necessarily correlate, and that other factors enter into the value. Ironically, the relationship between education and its value as a signal has become more complex and uncertain as signal numbers (in part through pressure to complete) have grown, and as the markets in which value is being determined have become global (in part through the ability to outsource or to have globally virtual employees). It is not, as we know, just a U.S. problem; in China, India, and elsewhere, exponential increases in college graduates mean that a degree is no guarantee of a job, particularly if not from a top institution.

In his now out-of-print and, surprisingly, somewhat forgotten 1978 book The Credential Society, sociologist Randall Collins described a higher education world where institutions were delivering degrees but not necessarily educations, and warned of credential inflation, the now-realized circumstance where over-commoditization of the baccalaureate and the drive for institutional revenue has turned the master’s degree into the new “necessity.”  Collins blamed institutions (including government) for this credentialism, and foresaw the day when institutions would be the primary beneficiaries of granting degrees. This is the question of “for whom” our programs are constructed and offered that I raised in my last post in reference to graduate education. But Collins pointed out another downside: that the focus on granting credentials distracted from providing an education of value, a major factor in the escalation of credentials where a baccalaureate is now needed to provide the equivalent of what used to be a high school education, and so on up the line.  More degrees become necessary just to stay even in what Lester Thurow called “the labor queue” for a job opportunity.

This is risky for students, of course. All things being equal, an employer will trust the signal of a record of productive work experience over the degree, and over the degree alone, making the new grad the very riskiest hire to make in a market where those with comparable degrees also have work experience. There are just not enough jobs requiring a college education around to absorb all the degree-holders. This, of course, pushes college-degree holders down into jobs that do not require a college degree; they will be hired over those with a high school diploma because they can be, and are ranked higher in terms of expectations for work readiness. The escalation of credentials up has a domino effect down, both in terms of relative position for a job, and relative wages.  Last week, just as I had reached this point in writing this post, The New York Times conveniently underscored it for me.

There is an insidious cycle here. The country’s worst nightmare is unemployment, and it is far cheaper to support students to stay in school than have them on the unemployment rolls, and perhaps committing crimes, becoming alcoholics, and otherwise increasing costs to the country. That “lottery ticket” is worth it not so much to the individual as to a country that knows it has an excess of labor; universities are its instrument, benefiting from a policy that, in exchange for taking on this task, permits it to expand its potential to collect tuitions and fees in order to fulfill its degree-granting role. The completion agenda suits governments and institutions (including employers who lobby for and benefit from a shifting of training costs) very well.

But what about students? Is it worth the chance at the brass ring? One could say there is no choice but get on the merry-go-round—and that is certainly what they are being told. But if we know that many will not get a shot because of where they are placed or when they got on or whether, metaphorically, they lack the height compared to the one behind them to reach the ring, is the current approach wrong—in both the incorrect and immoral senses of the word?

The inevitable is, of course, happening: people are beginning to question the value of a college degree for them as individuals. This is why, counterintutively, the push for the current wage data approach to value is completely wrong-headed and also, I think unethical. It is the individual that has been lost in the wholesale approach to commodity credentials and wage comparison, a particularly perverse kind of educational “channeling.” In the service of whose interests is, for example, the tireless emphasis on STEM and the disparagement of arts? Who will care when large percentages with STEM credentials can’t find jobs, experience depressed wages because there are so many of them, and find themselves with no transferable skills or habits of mind when technology moves on? If it is going to be difficult to find a job anyway, one should at least have followed one’s own interests. Education should allow you to choose your work, not vice versa.

On the constant merry-go-round, we seem to have forgotten that college, or any other education at any level except technical and some forms of professional education, is not to get a job, and certainly not to get a particular job. That is what trade school is for. We should be encouraging students who want a particular job -- a vocation -- to train elsewhere, perhaps with the idea of getting more and broader education at a later time.

And therein is what my father used to call the beauty of it: College will always be there when one is ready to seek an education. All faculty have had students -- some of us, large numbers of them -- who have no idea why they are there, except that someone told them they had to go. Many are not ready -- academically, personally, or both. They don’t actually want to be there. This is a huge disservice to students, and an enormous waste of resources. 

But what is the alternative, assuming we are not -- and I think we are not -- content with large numbers of unemployed? I do have some ideas, and I am sure the country welcomes yours. We could start by asking whether we as a country really believe that 12 years of schooling is not enough to prepare people for life and work. If so, then both our policies and our system of education are antiquated. And if not, and we still think we have a problem, what are we going to do about that?

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