For Education, Against Credentialism

Today I’ll be addressing a group of imprisoned students, university administrators, and prison officials to inaugurate the University of Baltimore’s partnership with the US Department of Education and Jessup Correctional Institution to offer Bachelor’s Degrees. We have a few tasks today, including inspiring the students and encouraging the officials that their support for the program is not a betrayal of their other constituents. Here’s what I plan to say:

It’s well-known that receiving a college degree improves life outcomes. The standard claim is that getting a Bachelor’s Degree is worth an extra million dollars in income over a person’s lifetime, but even this is hard to predict as the returns to education are increasing. In 1965, a person with a college degree only made $7,500 more per year than a person without one. This is called the college wage premium: in 2013, that college wage premium had increased to $17,500. Since it’s increasing, it’s likely that a college degree today will be worth even more than a million dollars over a lifetime.

What’s more, college graduates are healthier, have lower unemployment rates and shorter periods of unemployment. They are more likely to have happy marriages and less likely to be divorced; they are less likely to be incarcerated, and even live longer.

Thus it seems like a pretty good investment. But there is very little clear connection between studying Civil War history or the anthropology of upland Southeast Asia and doing the sorts of jobs that college graduates end up doing. What’s more, there’s a phenomenon called the “sheepskin effect” which shows that most of the college wage premium comes from completing school, rather than along the way. Half or even 90% of a college degree does very little to increase your income, while finishing that last course can make a big difference.

College, then, seems to serve more as a signal of ability and conscientiousness than as training in necessary skills. Employers are paying for smart and hardworking staff, and a college degree is a reliable signal of those qualities. And indeed in college campuses throughout the country we see evidence that this is true: no one thinks that a cheater or a plagiarist is “only cheating himself,” they worry that he has an unfair advantage. The grade matters more than the work, it seems, which is also why students seek out “easy As” and rejoice when class is canceled. And many students readily engage in “cramming” for exams knowing that they will not retain the material in the long-term. (I owe these examples to Bryan Caplan, though they now seem almost too obvious to attribute.)

Calling it “signaling” is mostly an economic exercise, but educational researchers can see it at work in different ways, all of which indicate that there is not enough emphasis on learning. Educational sociologists call it the “disengagement compact,” a bargain struck between faculty and students in which both agree: “I’ll leave you alone if you leave me alone.” Teachers agree to be entertaining and undemanding, and in exchange students agree to pay their tuition without complaint and give the faculty good teaching evaluations. Both thus have more time for other endeavors.

I believe that imprisoned students do not have the luxury of the disengagement compact. If we accept the signaling theory then a period of incarceration is a severe signal to potential employers: it is a signal that you are more likely than not to go back to prison. At best, a degree serves to distinguish some formerly incarcerated returning citizens from the rest, to deepen the prejudice against some returning citizens in favor of others.

Thankfully, it turns out that people do sometimes learn useful skills in college. Education can be transformative. A rigorous liberal arts education that focuses on reading difficult texts, solving complicated problems, and writing and speaking clearly about matters of little direct concern can help teach the skills that employers want more than any other:

  • critical thinking
  • analytic reasoning
  • problem solving
  • clear written and oral communication

And research on college learning outcomes suggests that a liberal arts education can teach these skills so long as the classes require a lot of reading (forty pages a week), a lot of writing (twenty pages a semester), and the professor has high expectations of the students. Which is encouraging, because it means that we can break out of the merely competitive cycle.

I have a theory as to why this works, that comes from the educational advocate Earl Shorris. His Clemente course in the humanities inspired Bard College’s Prison Initiative, which inspired the US Department of Education, who took a chance on us here. In his book Riches for the Poor, Shorris argues that one major factor in poverty is the stultifying character of one’s problems and environment. Shorris offers the analogy of Native American hunting practices, where hunters would encircle their prey and then move in, creating anxiety and fear that aids the hunter in capturing stunned prey. Poverty and prison both offer similar “surrounds of force” whereby individuals are beset by so many forces (“hunger, isolation, illness, landlords, police, abuse, neighbors, drugs, criminals, and racism”) that they do not know where to turn.

An education in the liberal arts gives us the crucial pause we need to avoid confusion and find an escape route. The “pause” is a performative skill, like learning to fix a car or perform a surgery. Anyone could do it at any time, but learning to pause when we’re stressed is actually extremely difficult. We need to learn to reflect. And it isn’t just enough for a professor to tell you: “reflect!” Just as you can’t just tell an illiterate person, “read!” or a clumsy person who has never learned, “ride that bike! A highly rigorous and engaged liberal arts degree offers its students an opportunity to train in important meta-cognitive habits. Education is not something the teacher does to the student, it’s something the student does to himself, with the professor’s guidance.

To sum up:

Education may just be about signaling. If so, let’s signal loud and clear how amazing you guys are! But there’s a good deal of evidence that education can be transformative, even if your professors can’t transform you, exactly. You have to transform yourself with their help.

We will set out the guidelines. You will meet our (VERY HIGH) expectations. If the educational sociologists are right, this will give you an opportunity to develop the habits and skills that employers want and need. And if Shorris is right, maybe you’ll develop inner peace along the way. If you see a professor giving you too much slack, ask: does she believe in the transformative value of education? Or is he just here to collect a paycheck and hand out sheepskins?

Demand transformation.

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