Connect with the people and ideas reshaping higher education, written by Goldie Blumenstyk. Delivered on Wednesdays.
From: Scott Carlson
Subject: Why the College Degree Is a Signal — and Why That Should Worry You
He’s back! I’m not Goldie Blumenstyk (though she does offer a few thoughts below). I’m Scott Carlson, also a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education, covering the cost and value of college. Subscribe here. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week:
Why the college degree is a signal — and why that should worry you
I have been reflecting on my past interviews with Bryan Caplan. Caplan, a libertarian economist at George Mason University and the author of The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money, argues that people don’t really learn anything in college. College students, he says, are mainly pursuing the signal that a college degree sends to employers, friends, and family members. If you graduate from George Mason, he says, you’re sending a signal that you have the tenacity and intrinsic intelligence to navigate the college maze — and you probably have the ability to achieve similar results in the workplace. If you graduate from Stanford or Harvard, even more so.
I’ll be honest. When Caplan and I talked last year — first for a Chronicle interview, and later for an hour on C-SPAN’s After Words — I wasn’t buying it. Clearly, some value of the degree is a signal. But Caplan rejects the notion that people get much of anything out of education, that they will ever apply their college lessons in history, literature, or philosophy to their everyday lives. If you watch the C-SPAN interview, at about the 30-minute mark, I suggest that college might introduce people to ideas that they can explore more deeply later in life, as they mature. Caplan dismisses that too. “It happens once in a long while,” he replies, and I laugh.
I’m not laughing anymore. I still believe Caplan is wrong that education offers nothing to cultivate people or to expose a populace to new ideas. But I have spent the past year thinking more about the primacy of the signal of the college degree, and two items in the past week’s news highlighted just what the degree means.
First, of course, we learned that some Hollywood stars and other wealthy people paid off folks to get their kids into elite colleges with fabricated achievements. Americans fumed at the reminder that the rich don’t play by the same rules as the rest of us, particularly in higher education, as if they hadn’t already known that from the college career of, say, Jared Kushner. Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin were ensuring that their kids could get a college signal that would impress their peers and secure their socioeconomic position.
The other item was The Chronicle‘s front-page story, written by my colleague Beckie Supiano, about why Enterprise Rent-A-Car and other companies under the Enterprise brand hire only college graduates. To Enterprise, Beckie writes, “a college degree matters mostly because it suggests that a candidate has acquired the right mix of skills to succeed in an entry-level job.” It suggests. It signals.
The #collegeadmissionscandal, all over Twitter, threatens to delegitimize the admissions process, already under scrutiny from the furor over affirmative action and legacy status, not to mention big-time college sports.
In the long run, however, what companies like Enterprise are doing is far more pervasive and threatening to the public’s view of the value of college. I interviewed Marie Artim of Enterprise for my 2017 report, “The Future of Work,” and I have since used the company as an example in speeches and talks across the country. Enterprise is not looking for graduates to have specific technical skills, because the company trains its workers extensively. Instead, Enterprise believes that a college degree leads students to develop those elusive “soft skills,” coveted by so many employers today: creativity, empathy, the ability to communicate.
But setting up the bachelor’s degree as that hurdle to a job is problematic. First of all, there is no guarantee that college conveys those skills; it merely signals that applicants might have them. Noel Ginsburg, the chief executive of a Colorado plastics company and an advocate for the apprenticeship model of training, told me that the higher-stakes, real-world environment of the workplace is probably better at imparting soft skills than college is.
Second, either intentionally or unintentionally, Enterprise and other employers may be using the college degree to filter their applicant pool by socioeconomic status. Sure, having a degree might signal that you’re tenacious, communicative, and so on, but given that people who are white and wealthy are more likely to graduate from a four-year institution, it also signals that you come from a certain tier in society.
Enterprise would certainly resist that notion of sorting by signal, as would others. But this isn’t crazy talk. The same week the admissions scandal broke, Byron Auguste, an economist and the founder of Opportunity@Work, published an article in Forbes that questioned the signal of the degree. “Far too many employers use a college pedigree as a crutch — a simplistic shortcut when they lack an efficient way to narrow down their applicant pool,” he wrote.
All of this is profoundly depressing to me, because I still think that education can and does lead people to become deeper, more inquisitive thinkers, with benefits that are more important than merely getting a job or earning the admiration of acquaintances. I grew up in the Twin Cities, in a state that devised a way to raise educational spending and spread the wealth among its public schools. Today, Minnesota boasts the highest literacy rate in the country, and Minneapolis and St. Paul have a robust economy, broad support for the arts, and a commitment to inclusivity for their growing, diversifying population.
In 1998, I moved to Baltimore, and I was astounded by the corruption, crime, and stagnant economy — all results of racial segregation and the decline of manufacturing. But most of all, I was struck by the number of exclusive private schools situated among the city’s tony estates, compared with the dysfunctional schools in Baltimore’s blue-collar and derelict neighborhoods. And I was thrown off by a pervasive question from locals at dinner parties: “Where did you go to school?” I discovered that they weren’t asking where I went to college. They were asking where I went to high school. It was a quick way to peg someone by class.
Some kids are given elite educational signals early — and with family connections, they can convert those signals into a career at a consulting firm or a job in the White House. Families in more humble communities cobble together their resources to send a promising son or daughter to college. Given the many pitfalls that can knock a child off a college path, it’s a high-stakes gamble for a signal that matters more than ever.
Is this what we want college to be? Of all the ways we need to transform education and what it means, in a country hobbled by its growing inequality, the admissions-bribery scheme may be a moment that leads the nation to re-evaluate the true value and purpose of a college degree.
Quote of the week.
“I’m proud that when her time comes, my kid will get admitted the old fashioned-way: by choosing parents wealthy enough to afford a house in a good school district and an SAT prep course.”
Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies and director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia, reacting in a tweet to the college-admissions scandal.
Auditors to the rescue? And don’t forget the trustees.
While she’s wrapping up a big project, Goldie couldn’t resist weighing in with the following:
Of all the thoughtful reporting and commentary on the admissions scandal over the past week in The Chronicle and elsewhere, I was particularly struck by comments from an education-company investor I know and have interviewed, Ryan Craig. He mentioned two sets of university officials that most others haven’t: auditors and boards of trustees.
As Craig described in his “Gap Letter,” he reached out to Terah Brown, executive director of the Association of College and University Auditors, which represents the internal-audit function at 500 colleges and universities. Brown told him she was not aware of any university report or statement indicating that thorough audits of the admissions function are typical “or have ever occurred.”
“A process allowing coaches to reserve slots for bribes is exactly the kind of material weakness that would be caught by an internal audit and that would need to be remedied by implementing a new control,” Craig wrote. “Likewise, because of the importance of standardized-test scores to admissions, appropriately focused auditors might insist on reports from College Board and ACT demonstrating their controls, which — according to reports this week — either failed or didn’t exist in the first place.”
But don’t blame the auditors. As Craig also wrote, “According to Brown, ‘the board sets the path for audit review.’”
Craig is smart to have flagged that issue. Internal auditors at colleges tend to get attention for monitoring finances, but they can also provide an important check on other forms of misconduct. Boards of trustees are the fiduciaries and the stewards.
Trustees are on my mind now because I’ll be speaking at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges’ meeting next month in Orlando, Fla. It’s been years since I attended this group’s annual meeting. Back when I did, I recall being surprised at how few of the trustees were talking about conflicts of interest in academic research, which was a prominent issue at the time. Now I’m wondering how much this admissions scandal will dominate the discussion.
In his newsletter, Craig offered his own theory of why trustees might not want to sic auditors on the admissions process. “I suspect it’s less naïveté than hypocrisy,” he wrote, “because closing the side door would probably mean closing the back door. And a lot of money has been pouring through the back door.”
It’s a cynical take, for sure. But it makes for a good dare to trustees to prove him wrong.
Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.