Monday, November 05, 2007

Education as Credentialing

Via Marginal Revolution, I see this interview with sociologist Randall Collins, author of (among other things) "The Credential Society." (About which, see here and here).

Here's what he says about credentialing:
One of my regrets doing lots of different stuff is that you can’t always follow up stuff that you’ve done earlier. I predicted some twenty years ago that the dynamics of the credential seeking process would lead to further inflationary effects. And as far as I can see that certainly has happened. I’ve written a little about this recently, mainly because I’m interested in the question, “Can education inflation go on indefinitely?” The difference that emerges here between a monetary system and educational credentials is that it is pretty costless to produce more money. All you have to do is have the government change the denomination on the bills, so you end up like Yugoslavia with a million dinars equalling a penny. But it is expensive to produce more educational credentials. At some point the cost side of it is going to kick in and constrain the inflationary side of it. . . .

The major problem of education is basically stratification. Not everyone does well because basically this is a system of getting credentials and some people are going to get the best jobs out of this. The more people compete the more inflationary it is. I haven’t seen a single politician who has figured that out. Maybe it’s intractable. Maybe nobody wants to think about this. Okay, let’s get all the lowest students better, so what? So they will all become Ph.D.’s in physics? Or will it just be that you need a Ph.D. to get a job at McDonalds? I think it’s a major issue of stratification in the future; it deserves more analysis.
Collins later adds this admirably frank explanation for why he quit publishing in that area (his explanation sheds some light on why not many professors are willing to question the economic utility of increased education):
On the other hand, the other policy issue that I was really interested in early on in my life, namely educational stratification, educational credentialism, I realized, after I published my book on this in 1979, I realized, you know, if I keep on trying to make this, get this argument across to the public, I should put myself in to be Ronald Reagan’s secretary of education. Because the conservatives want to get rid of the education system too. At least they did at that time. So, I said, “I’m really just attacking the organization in which we all work and make our living.” We make our living off this expanding credential system." So, I thought, “I think I’ll switch to something else.”



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