Two Penn sociologists say higher education is not what it appears, or promises.

By Noel Weyrich | Illustration by Richard Borge

If there is a consensus in America about college education, it’s that every young person should get one. Census figures show that college graduates enjoy an average income 40 percent higher than that of workers with only high-school diplomas, which is largely why almost 70 percent of every high-school class now goes on to higher education. Conventional wisdom suggests that a high-tech economy will need these better-educated workers, and that rising rates of college enrollment are a reassuring sign that America remains a meritocracy, a land of opportunity.

However, these same trends—the widening income gap, the mounting legions of college freshmen—are also open to a decidedly different and very ominous set of interpretations. A growing number of scholars believe that the vast expansion of higher education in the United States has been unhealthy for society and academe alike—and the sociology department at Penn happens to be home to two of higher education’s most prominent pessimists.

Dr. Ivar Berg, professor of sociology, and Dr. Randall Collins, Dorothy Thomas Professor of Sociology, rank among the most frequently cited sources of scholarship critical of the effect that spiraling educational requirements have had on work life in the U.S. Though neither would deny that college study can be a personally rewarding experience, both Berg and Collins have raised serious concerns about how “credentialism” has transformed college campuses into tollbooths on the road to middle-class respectability. Having used two entirely different methods of inquiry to arrive at their conclusions, both sociologists contend that higher education has gained vast public subsidies by promising to increase workplace productivity and improve social mobility—while failing at both tasks.

Collins, for instance, marvels at the common notion that producing more degree-holders will help more people achieve the American Dream, claiming the concept “has a kind of dog-chasing-its-tail quality to it.” Increasing the number of credentialed people competing for a finite number of jobs tends to ratchet up the educational requirements for those jobs without increasing anyone’s income. “Imagine if we said we want every school in the country to have a championship football team, that every team should win 90 percent of its games,” he says. “People would recognize the flaw in that thinking. But we say that about education all the time.”

Says Berg, “More and more lower-income people are attending college at higher rates than they ever did before. And they are taking jobs way below what college degrees would have gotten them years ago.” Graduates burdened by student loans discover that the job market is so glutted that they can’t find work that pays well enough to discharge their debts. “It’s a real menace,” he adds. “These kids are mortgaged to the hilt.” For many who entered college in hope of getting ahead in life, Berg says a degree may prove at best to be “a slightly porous parachute for a softer landing in the mobility stakes.”

In an opinion piece he wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2002, Collins argued that most problems on university campuses today stem from the proliferation of degree programs that attract waves of credential-seeking students. Entitled “The Dirty Secret of Credential Inflation,” the article describes a higher education system locked in a cycle of expanding access to degrees, which dilutes the value of those degrees in the employment market, which, in turn, drives a portion of those degree-holders back to campus for still more advanced degrees. “In principle,” he wrote, “credential inflation could go on endlessly, until janitors need Ph.D.’s and babysitters are required to hold advanced degrees in child care. People could stay in college up through their 30s and 40s.”

Among the plague of side effects brought on by credential inflation, Collins counts grade inflation, alienated students, and a “restless proletariat” of teaching assistants. The dirty secret in the article title is Collins’ observation that credential inflation keeps universities flush with tuition dollars, which help to finance the livelihoods of senior faculty such as himself. “Most intellectuals in liberal society, we take it pretty much as an article of faith that we need to expand education,” he says. “It’s also for us a rather self-serving argument. It provides our positions.”

In the 1970s, both Berg and Collins wrote now-classic books on the sociology of education that are commonly cited in most texts exploring the connection between school and the workplace. Berg’s pioneering Education and Jobs: The Great Training Robbery (1970) made the case that employers in government and industry were using educational credentials as crude hiring criteria with little regard for whether higher-paid college graduates actually made better employees than the high-school graduates they replaced. Collins’ book, The Credential Society (1979), cited historic precedent and the theories of Max Weber to argue that the spiral of credential requirements for white-collar work in America has been driven by the natural desire of an educated elite to preserve the best occupations in society for their offspring.

The Brooklyn-bred son of a Norwegian-born carpenter, Berg, 84, says he foresaw the working world’s increased emphasis on educational attainment when he returned home from the military in the 1940s. “I knew many kids who left the military and they were better students than me, but they wanted to get a skill,” he recalls. “Some said to me, ‘Ivar, you’re going to school for four years, you’re going to lose four years of income while I’m getting a skill.’ But I saw this coming. To get anywhere you’re going to need a degree, and I decided the one place a degree really made sense was the academy. I decided I really didn’t want to work. I wanted to write about work!”

Before arriving at Penn in 1979 to chair the sociology department, Berg enjoyed a long tenure at Columbia’s graduate school of business. As a senior research associate in its Conservation of Human Resources Project, he took note of how business managers were increasingly keen to hire college graduates to do jobs that had long been the province of mere high-school graduates. Employers, many of whom lacked degrees themselves, assumed that college graduates possessed skills and knowledge that would make them superior employees. In academic terms, this is called the theory of human capital, and Berg sensed that the theory would not survive objective analysis. “We fought WWII with four percent college graduates and 24 percent high-school graduates,” he says. “At the time there might have been 20 percent of CEOs with college degrees.”

Berg and his research assistants interviewed managers, scoured the existing literature, examined previous manpower studies, and pored over employee files at government agencies, insurance companies, banks, and industrial firms. Among clerks, salesmen, technicians, and junior executives, they could find no dependable relationship between formal education and worker productivity. In some workplaces where high-school graduates and college graduates worked side-by-side at the same jobs, the college graduates on average were more frequently dissatisfied and had higher rates of turnover and lower performance ratings.

The introduction of jet travel in the late 1950s gave Berg’s team a unique opportunity to test whether cognitive skills are best honed in school or on the job. To run the nation’s new system of air-traffic control, the Federal Aviation Administration hired and trained 507 men, half of whom had no formal education beyond high school. Years later, when Berg and his assistants evaluated the group’s job performances by counting the numbers of awards the men had earned from supervisors, half the college graduates had earned no awards, while a little over one-third had earned two or more. Among high-school graduates, though, only 30 percent had earned no awards and 43 percent had earned at least two. Results were mixed among controllers who had some education past high school. “Education,” Berg concluded, “proves not to be a factor in the daily performances of one of the most demanding decision-making jobs in America.” As Berg saw it, the “great training robbery” of the postwar years was the massive waste of government spending on an education system that does little or nothing to enhance worker productivity. At the time, annual expenditures on U.S. higher education stood at about $17 billion. Today, the figure is $270 billion, of which $55 billion is supplied by state appropriations, with another $81 billion coming from federally funded student financial aid.

Education and Jobs sold surprisingly well when it was published, and it influenced a young Stanford economist named Michael Spence who would go on to win the 2001 Nobel Prize for his work on “market signaling.” Spence was among the first to apply rigorous economic theory to Berg’s notion that employers were using education as a simple screening device and not as an indicator that job applicants with more education possess superior skills. Spence’s theory is that, even if education is devoid of any practical content, a high level of education can “signal” to an employer that an individual is productive enough to endure the costs in time, effort, and money to advance.

Randall Collins, 56, was raised in a very different world than Berg’s. The son of a Foreign Service official in postwar Europe who attended New England prep schools, Collins developed an interest at an early age in world power politics, social-class distinctions, and the subtle interpersonal rituals he observed among diplomats. After his undergraduate years at Harvard, he earned his Ph.D. at Berkeley during the 1960s, in the midst of the Free Speech Movement. Collins came to Penn in 1997 from the University of California at Riverside, and Ivar Berg served on the sociology department committee that recruited him. Soon after arriving here, Collins published The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change, a 1,118-page opus that examines the social history of Western, Indian, and Asian thought.

The Credential Society, Collins’ first book, was a slim volume by comparison, though it remains among the most often cited works in education research. An award-winning sociological history, it examined the U.S. system of higher education as a projection of the American national character, which embraces individualism, status-seeking, and free-market competition. The book argued that the rapid expansion of high school and college education in the 19th century was not provoked by any increased economic demand for white-collar employees with particular cognitive skills. It was driven by the desire of prosperous and middle-class families to secure status for their progeny. Similarly, he wrote that the rise of university professional schools of medicine, law, and engineering was a way to monopolize career paths for highly educated elites while wiping out competitive avenues of apprentice-type on-the-job training.

“I thought about this quite deliberately, he says. “The atmosphere of being a student in the 1960s meant being concerned about inequality and how you can change it. Sociologists who were studying social mobility were doing surveys that pointed to education as the single crucial factor that seemed to determine people’s careers. So I said, ‘All right, I want to do something to study this but I want to look at the whole organizational system.’”

Citing his previous studies of other ritualized credential systems that emerged in the ancient Chinese civil service and in other cultures around the world, Collins outlined a common pattern in which dominant social groups use a spiral of credentials to maintain elite control over the choicest occupations. In this way, Collins says, education can hold out the promise of meritocratic advancement, when in fact the spiraling credential requirements increasingly favor those with the “cultural capital” to succeed in school and the family income that permits them to leave the workplace for additional schooling. The end result would have to be stagnating social mobility, he says, which is borne out by a recent study by researchers at the London School of Economics. Among children born between 1958 and 1970, the study says, rates of “cross-generational mobility” in the U.S. and U.K. have trailed those of Canada, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries. In the U.S., “this implies that the big expansion in university participation has tended to benefit children from affluent families more and thus reinforced immobility across generations.”

Medicine, the highest paying of the professions, is a case in point. It would be more rational, more efficient and more equitable, Collins reasoned, if young people wishing to become medical doctors were to start out as medical orderlies and work their way up the ranks to doctor, with perhaps two years of medical education along the way. Instead, medical schools admit candidates who have demonstrated proficiency in testing and schooling, whether or not they have a particular aptitude for medicine. “As it stands,” Collins wrote, “American medical training is attached at the end of a very long and expensive education that keeps the supply of physicians low and their incomes and social backgrounds very high.”

Seated in his apartment overlooking Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square, the mild-mannered Collins recalls that he once had a seat on a medical school admissions board in California, and he came across the application of a young man who had been an Army medic in Vietnam: “I said, ‘This guy has actually practiced medicine, he’s stitching up people on the battlefield. There’s no doubt that this person could be a doctor.’ But they said no, he wasn’t academically distinguished enough.” Most professions, from law and engineering to teaching and social work, have emulated the medical model by requiring extended academic study and credentials while persuading lawmakers to abolish competing forms of on-the-job training.

That criticism makes Dr. Stanley Goldfarb bristle a bit. “We had apprenticeship without the formal structures of medical education 100 years ago and it was a disaster,” says Goldfarb, associate dean of curriculum at Penn’s School of Medicine. Four-year residencies, he says, which follow four years of medical school, now serve as apprenticeships, but only after medical students are academically well grounded. “After all, it is a scientific discipline, and you do have to master a body of science. It’s one thing to be a technician and to do certain tasks in medicine. It’s another thing to be able to go out to the public and say, ‘I’m capable of keeping up with the most modern techniques in your care.’” Every medical school understands the need for a more diverse socioeconomic student population, he says, claiming that medicine, more than most professions, looks beyond mere academic achievement in selecting future members of the field. Says Goldfarb, “You have to serve the entire spectrum of the American population, and you can’t just have white males as the only output of your medical schools. Everyone tries to make a concerted effort on this.”

Peter Cappelli, George W. Taylor Professor of Management at the Wharton School, sees the credentials race as a natural response to the current job market where desirable employment opportunities are scarce. The spiral in stated job requirements, he says, “has something to do with the fact that if you could hire someone with more education, why wouldn’t you?” In the long term, Cappelli says Berg’s and Collins’ theories, while valuable, betray a certain sociological bias in assuming that society is a zero-sum game. “Economists have their own bias,” he notes. “My own sense is that the economists are probably more blind on this one than the sociologists are. Economists don’t even think there’s any tradeoff. They assume that if everybody had college degrees, and people with college degrees make more money, then ergo everybody would be better off.”

David Labaree C’73 G’73 Gr’83 is one of a growing number of educators who have come to see a host of detrimental effects caused by credentialism on university campuses. “[Berg and Collins] come at the same problem from different angles, which is interesting,” says Labaree, an education professor at Stanford University. “They both point to the disconnect between form and substance in education, but one’s looking at it much more as a function of the historical development of stratification and the protection of upper middle-class privilege. The other is looking at it more from the dysfunctionality within the economy and within business.”

Labaree’s 1997 book, How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education, cited his indebtedness to Berg, with whom he studied at Penn, and Collins, whose theory on credentialing provided the underpinning of his argument. “In U.S. schools,” he wrote, “the relentless urge to get ahead has undermined the opportunity to get an education.” As college degrees have become more common, top-tier universities have been flooded with applicants seeking a more distinctive credential. The result, says Labaree, is college as a form of conspicuous consumption.

“The credentials race undermines learning,” he says. “Students are being taught basically that ‘What I’m after here in school is to pick up grades, credits, and degrees. My job is to get the most of all of those things as I can for the least investment.’ That’s just being a smart consumer. No one wants to pay the sticker price for a car if they can get it at a discount. So why not get the degree with less effort, less investment? The system is teaching those kinds of student skills, rather than the idea that, geez, you really ought to be doing this the hard way because that way you learn more. That’s a hard sell.”

While they may not share Collins’ and Berg’s glum outlook, other education professors have come to terms in recent years with the way universities have become publicly subsidized vehicles for private advancement. Penn education professor Robert Zemsky, in his recent book Remaking the American University, notes that state governments have responded by cutting back their subsidies, which only makes universities all the more hungry for students who will pay their full tuitions. The result, Zemsky worries, is a drift toward increasing elitism in the 250 most selective colleges and universities. He points out that in the year 2000, 55 percent of entering freshmen at these schools came from families in the top quartile of income, up from 46 percent just 15 years earlier.

Marvin Lazerson, Howard P. and Judith R. Berkowitz Professor of Education, co-authored a book last year with W. Norton Grubb entitled The Education Gospel, which cites both Collins and Berg in explaining why higher education is unable to function credibly as the gatekeeper to prosperity. Lazerson notes that even the credentials produced by professional graduate schools of medicine, law, business, and engineering are under fire by employers and professional associations for the poor job they do in preparing students for real-world work. “The critics of medical education have cited a bloated curriculum, emphasis on rote memory, and inattention to patients as people,” Lazerson writes, while a report from the American Bar Association “found new lawyers unable to draft contracts or complete forms routinely required by courts.”

Zemsky, for his part, sees hope for universities to regain their public role by consciously using their power in the marketplace in a politically savvy way to help achieve public goals, such as improving troubled inner-city school systems. Lazerson and Grubb conclude their book by expressing a desire that government look to other methods of providing social equity beside education, “and correct the social and economic conditions that make it impossible for some students to benefit from educational opportunities.”

To Berg and Collins, both solutions would demand that powerful institutions renounce some of their power and prestige for the general good, which they deem unlikely given the competitive status-seeking nature of American institutions. Collins had closed The Credential Society with a chapter prescribing an abolitionist movement to de-credentialize the workplace. He theorized that once it was illegal to require formal credentials for employment, employers would need to consider recruiting clerical workers for apprenticeship-style entry-level white-collar jobs. But he held out little hope de-credentialing would occur. “In effect, we are very much more like a tribal society than we like to admit,” he wrote. “Despite our self-image of rational control, our institutions are no more reflectively chosen than the tribal-initiation rites, secret societies, and implacable gods that our educational and occupational procedures resemble so much.”

It is perhaps the task of the sociologist to live in society with a certain degree of absurd detachment. Working within a university while doubting the rational legitimacy of its stated mission is, for Berg and Collins, part of the terrain. All of their offspring have gone on to college. Berg’s son holds an M.B.A. and is a vice-dean at Columbia’s nursing school. Collins’ three grown children have pursued respective careers in music, the industry and in a religious youth organization. “I’m not unhappy they went to college,” he says, “but it was more a luxury than a necessity.”

Both Berg and Collins remember getting some resistance from their colleagues when they turned their sociology training back on the educational enterprise that had nurtured them. “I was teaching at a business school when [Education and Jobs] was written,” Berg remembers. “Most of my colleagues warned me, ‘You can’t get away with this.’” As irreverent as the subtitle of the book was, he and his research assistant came up with a working title that was even more provocative: “I Upped My Education. Up Yours!” He struck a more somber note with the book’s first line: “It gives an educator no pleasure to present the materials in this volume.”

What Berg most remembers about the response to the book was a letter in The New York Times from a college professor in St. Louis who complained that Berg was casting doubt on the social value of education just as educators’ incomes were finally climbing. “He said about me, ‘Why is he going public with this?’” Berg laughs. “With a perfectly straight face, he was not denying anything in the book. He just had the attitude of, ‘We’re being found out!’”

Collins says that when he first published The Credential Society, colleagues objected most strongly to his prescription for credential abolitionism. “People would say, ‘Surely you must be joking. You don’t mean to say abolish this thing.’ Others said, ‘Well, my parents never would have made it without access to education.’”

Collins himself had a more personal reaction to his own work. “It was a crisis of conscience,” he remembers. “I’d taken a kind of radical position, and I was asking myself, ‘Should I be working in this institution if it really is the way I say it is? So I quit.’” For a time, he worked as a writer and an independent scholar, but, he says, the pull of university life was too great.

In the course of their teaching duties at Penn, Berg and Collins part company in one important way that reflects their contrasting personalities. The somewhat formal and mannerly Collins says he generally avoids discussing issues related to credentialism with his students. “I haven’t brought it up in classes in recent years,” he concedes. “It makes the students depressed, actually.”

Berg, on the other hand, is more intellectually pugnacious and can’t resist the irony of the situation. “I don’t pull punches with them. It’s not fair,” he says. “Colleges are aging vats. It’s the one segment of the unemployed we don’t count. So I joke with my students here: ‘You think you’re students and I’m the professor. You’ve got it all wrong! You’re the unemployed and I’m the social worker.’ I’ve been telling them that for years.”

Noel Weyrich is a writer-at-large for Philadelphia magazine.

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