January 7, 2008

Credentialism, human capital, and ahistoricism

I recently had occasion to review a very small slice of the economic literature on the value of education, and it struck me that while both sociologists and economists struggle with arguments about the value of education in contrast with the value of a credential, they do so almost in mirrored ways. The economic argument about credentialism comes from some conservative economists such as Richard Vedder, who asks,


Can the strictly credentialing function be performed much cheaper through alternative approaches --examinations, IQ tests, etc.?... How much of "learning" in college is the attainment of needed skills (e.g., accounting, engineering skills) that are not readily learned on the job? And how much of it is merely an academic form of some endurance race, where the mere completion of the race denotes certain desirable character traits?

To Vedder and a few others, educational credentials signal employers about the inherent taits of potential employees. Thus, to Vedder, the Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1971) case was horrible because it discouraged employers from using what he thinks is direct evidence of intrinsic personal value (IQ tests) and thus encourages the use of educational credentials as a proxy.

(Even apart from Vedder's misplaced faith in IQ tests, his interpretation of Griggs is a substantial misreading of the case on two important grounds. First, the Supreme Court also struck down the use of educational credentials by Duke at the time (in this case, high school diplomas) because they were not tied to bona fide job requirements. Second, Vedder ignores the important historical context: while the district court and appeals court decided that the plaintiffs had not demonstrated evidence of discriminatory intent of denying opportunities to African-American employees, the use of IQ tests and credential requirements maintained an uneven playing field: "Under the [1964 Civil Rights] Act, practices, procedures, or tests neutral on their face, and even neutral in terms of intent, cannot be maintained if they operate to 'freeze' the status quo of prior discriminatory employment practices.")

Vedder and some other economists are skeptical of the intrinsic value of education, seeing the use of credentials as a poor proxy or signal of some intrinsic values. In this story, people who enroll in and complete college essentially have the same value at the end of college as at the beginning, but the process performs a sorting function on traits that employers find valuable. Because of this argument, mainstream economists exploring the value of a diploma have spent enormous effort trying to disentangle the value of a degree from what they vaguely call ability.

Far to the left of Vedder, a number of sociologists (and some economists and historians of education) have also criticized the argument that education is primarily an investment in human capital. The social-reproduction argument claims that schooling is provided on an unequal basis, and these unequal opportunities essentially have confirmed a preexisting social hierarchy. Thus, for example, Sam Bowles and Herbert Gintis provided evidence that even within young adults with similar ranges of scores on IQ tests, those from wealthier families were far more likely to attend college. The history of tracking provided a wealth of evidence of unequal curriculum opportunities and low expectations for students from poor families, and the conclusion drawn by the mirror image of the conservative credentialists was, don't bother reforming education. To them, we should change the economic system instead.

At a retrospective panel at the Social Science History Association in 2000 or 2001 (I don't remember which year), Herb Gintis said that he saw no conflict between these mirror images. Gintis was referring not to economists but instead to structural-functionalist sociologists such as Robert Dreeben as the mirror of his and Bowles's argument. Yes, he said, his 1970s version of social reproduction was as determinist as Dreeben's argument that schools served primarily to inure students to their largely predetermined place in the social order. Gintis said he and Bowles had just turned Dreeben's argument on its head.*

Some writers on credentialism have used historical trends to make their case. Thus, Richard Freeman's The Overeducated American (1976) and Thomas Green's Predicting the Behavior of the Educational System (1980) wrote about the changing value of educational credentials. The classic sociological treatise on the topic is David Labaree's How To Succeed in School without Really Learning (1997). More recent is Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz's work, such as their recent NBER paper The Race between Education and Technology (2007). To Goldin and Katz, the relative value of educational credentials have changed in different directions over time, and the mid-20th century was the time simultaneously of rapidly increasing high school attainment and of both wage compression (lower wage inequality) and of low relative value to education.

This link between inequality and the growing value of education over the late 20th century should not be treated as a post-WW2 trends, though. At the beginning of the 20th century, Goldin and Katz argue that the relative value of a high school education was quite high. (In some ways, this mirrors Green's analysis, but with fundamentally different mechanisms. Among other matters, Green treats the economic value of a diploma as a credential function, while Goldin and Katz are talking about their estimates of the human-capital value of completing a high school education.)

So how do we treat the credential value vs. the non-instrumental value of education? It is not a simple human-capital issue, but students do learn stuff in school. It is not just credentialism, but there is a "sheepskin effect" to a diploma. Over the past few years, I have explained to my classes that there are different layers to the relationship between schools and the economy. One is human capital. A second is the use of schools as sites for sponsorship, either at the individual level (what James Rosenbaum has talked about as networking) or at the mass level (credentialing). A third is the more mundane, lay understanding of networking: learning about and with others in a way that extends beyond one's own skills. (For a variety of reasons, I am not going to lump this with cultural capital or Coleman's concept of social capital.) A fourth level is at the level of social and political beliefs about opportunity (or the connections that Jennifer Hochschild and Nathan Scovronick describe between public schooling and the "American dream"). Cutting across these different levels are differences between the use of schooling for private purposes (individual or family competition) and the use of schooling for public purposes.

While this static sketch serves its teaching purpose reasonably well (and it's a lot easier to teach and more satisfying than Bourdieau's notion of cultural capital), it is not satisfying as a template for an historian. How did these different layers and purposes evolve?

And now, dear readers, I'm going to leave you in suspense, for I cannot answer that question to my satisfaction. Or at least not yet. But I'll take suggestions!

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Posted in Education policy on January 7, 2008 12:21 PM |