In a recent article the Pope Center published, I disputed the claims of other contributors to a Chronicle forum that higher education has become “an engine of inequality.” Back on July 19, Danny Vinik of the Washington Monthly wrote a post in which he argued that I was mistaken.
Vinik is convinced that higher education in fact is part of the inequality problem, because college degrees are supposedly more necessary than ever (for many of the better-paying jobs, anyway) but relatively few students from low-income households earn college degrees. He apparently concedes my point that the great push to put more and more people through college has led to credential inflation, but then thinks he turns the tables on my argument by saying that this proves the necessity of trying to get far more of those lower-income students through college.
What he fails to take account of in my argument is that a college degree is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for success. As I pointed out in my article (and many others have also made this observation), large numbers of Americans with college degrees — even advanced ones — are working in jobs that do not call for any academic preparation. That includes people from well-to-do families and people from poor families. Many of them have accumulated significant student debts, but can obtain no work that they couldn’t have found right after high school. Having a college degree to your name may have been a sufficient condition for success 30 or 40 years ago, but that is certainly no longer the case.
Nor is a college degree a necessary condition, despite widespread credential inflation. There are quite a few Americans who never earned a college degree, including some who never went to college at all, who have been successful. While credential inflation is a blockade for those without a degree in many businesses, it isn’t in others, such as retailing.
Vinik seems to think that the remedy for the obstacle that credential inflation poses for those who don’t have college degrees is to put many more people through college. That can’t work. Even if everyone had a college degree, the jobs available in the economy would still be the same. Educational credentials are a positional good and if we could somehow put more people through college, the credential ratchet would just go up another notch and to distinguish yourself, you’d need to have a higher degree. (We are already seeing that in some business fields, where you can’t get in the door without an MBA.) Here is what Stanford professor David Labaree wrote about this phenomenon in his book How To Succeed in School Without Really Learning:
The difficulty posed by (the glut of graduates) is not that the population becomes overeducated . . . but that it becomes overcredentialed, as people pursue diplomas less for the knowledge they are thereby acquiring than for the access the diplomas themselves provide. The result is a spiral of credential inflation, for as each level of education in turn gradually floods with a crowd of ambitious consumers, individuals have to keep seeking ever higher levels of credentials in order to move a step ahead of the pack. In such a system, nobody wins.
Labaree wrote that in 1997, and things are even worse now than back then: The credentials cost considerably more but the level of knowledge that students typically obtain is lower. The more students we have tried to process through college, the more college standards have fallen to accommodate those who are academically weak and disengaged. Last year’s book Academically Adrift demonstrated what professors have known for a long time, namely that many students coast through their courses without learning anything.
I’m sorry Mr. Vinik, but trying to solve the problem of credential inflation by increasing the numbers of people who go to college is like trying to cure a hangover with more alcohol.