May 20, 2010

The value of college I

Over the past week, I had been collecting a number of references to recent online discussions of the value of education when the New York Times column by Jacques Steinberg highlighting the views of Richard Vedder and Charles Murray appeared. Claus von Zastrow (among others) has already pointed out that given the fact that the advocates of the "you don't need college" position are highly educated, this reads as an argument that other people's children shouldn't go to college. I sometimes have a bit of fun when Bill Gates talks about the importance of college--"do as I say, not as I do"--but Gates errs on the sides of generosity in terms of what he'd like others to accomplish. Not so Vedder or Murray.

I'm going back over Goldin and Katz's The Race between Education and Technology with a finer-toothed comb than when it first came out in 2008, and I'll probably write a number of posts on this topic. Generally, the literature on the value of higher education (or formal schooling more broadly) is not particularly nuanced. It's human capital and a boost to income! No, it's a queueing process! No, it's a confirmation of inherited intelligence! It's a floor wax! It's a dessert topping!

I'll start with an historical perspective, a warning about loose generalizations: let's stop talking about "higher education" in the abstract, as if it's the output of a utility. Colleges and universities are specific institutions, and the value that students receive from them are dependent on context. In the nineteenth century, a number of states and some cities created normal schools, or schools designed to train teachers. But as Chris Ogren and others have pointed out, in addition to the teacher-training function, public normal schools were often the nearest place where anyone could get something beyond rudimentary schooling, so they inevitably became general schools. When normal schools became teachers colleges, you saw the same phenomenon; Lyndon Johnson attended a teachers college because that was where he could go to college, period. To see the history of normal schools and teachers colleges entirely through the lens of teacher education would be historically inaccurate and narrow.

Or, to take another example, the history of vocational education is not just about narrow trade schooling and the denial of educational opportunity through tracking. That's a large part of it (e.g., ), but again, context is everything. Ira Katznelson and Margaret Weir point out the disputes between labor and business in the structure of vocational education in Chicago. And both Kathryn Neckerman and Bill Graebner have pointed out that in many northern cities, vocational-technical high schools were one cut above comprehensive high schools, sufficiently so that working-class whites fought to keep African American students out of them. In my archival research for my dissertation and first book, I saw something similar in the Atlanta-area vo-tech school in the early 1960s, where administrators fought to prevent it from being what they perceived might be the dumping ground for area schools. Again, institutional context is important.

The reality is that higher education serves several "functions." Some of that could be considered human capital, but the only way to call all of the value human capital is to make the term meaningless. And plenty of higher (and other) education also helps advantaged families hoard those advantages, but it's far from a hermetic process and far less tilted towards the wealthy than plenty of other areas of life (housing, the labor market, tax codes, health-care access, etc.). And all of this type of analysis is predicated on the ability to identify predictable consequences of education. But that's not true, and the prime example is the coeducation of primary education in 19th century America. That's the topic for the next entry on the value of education.

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Posted in Education policy on May 20, 2010 8:43 PM |