Today I am posting a piece I wrote in 1995. It was the foreword to a book by David K. Brown, Degrees of Control: A Sociology of Educational Expansion and Occupational Credentialism.
I have long been interested in credentialing theory, but this is the only place where I ever tried to spell out in detail how the theory works. For this purpose, I draw on the case of the rapid expansion of the US system of higher education in the 19th century and its transformation at the end of the century, which is the focus of Brown’s book. Here’s a link to a pdf of the original.
The case is particularly fruitful for demonstrating the value of credentialing theory, because the most prominent theory of education development simply can’t make sense of it. Functionalist theory sees the emergence of educational systems as part of the process of modernization. As societies become more complex, with a greater division of labor and a shift from manual to mental work, the economy requires workers with higher degrees of verbal and cognitive skills. Elementary, secondary and higher education arise over time in response to this need.
The history of education in the U.S., however, poses a real problem for this explanation. American higher education exploded in the 19th century, to the point that there were 800 some colleges in existence by 1880, which was more than the total number in the continent of Europe. It was the highest rate of colleges per 100,000 population that the world have ever seen. The problem is that this increase was not in respond to increasing demand from employers for college-educated workers. While the rate of higher schooling was increasing across the century, the skill demands in the workforce were declining. The growth of factory production was subdividing forms of skilled work, such as shoemaking, into a series of low-skilled tasks on the assembly line.
This being the case, then, how can we understand the explosion of college founding in the 19th century? Brown provides a compelling explanation, and I lay out his core arguments in my foreword. I hope you find it illuminating.
In this book, David Brown tackles an important question that has long puzzled scholars who wanted to understand the central role that education plays in American society: When compared with other Western countries, why did the United States experience such extraordinary growth in higher education? Whereas in most societies higher education has long been seen as a privilege that is granted to a relatively small proportion of the population, in the United States it has increasingly come to be seen as a right of the ordinary citizen. Nor was this rapid increase in accessibility very recent phenomenon. As Brown notes, between 1870 and 1930, the proportion of college-age persons (18 to 21 years old) who attended institutions of higher education rose from 1.7% to 13.0%. And this was long before the proliferation of regional state universities and community colleges made college attendance a majority experience for American youth.
The range of possible answers to this question is considerable, with each carrying its own distinctive image of the nature of American political and social life. For example, perhaps the rapid growth in the opportunity for higher education was an expression of egalitarian politics and a confirmation of the American Dream; or perhaps it was a political diversion, providing ideological cover for persistent inequality; or perhaps it was merely an accident — an unintended consequence of a struggle for something altogether different. In politically charged terrain such as this, one would prefer to seek guidance from an author who doesn’t ask the reader to march behind an ideological banner toward a preordained conclusion, but who instead rigorously examines the historical data and allows for the possibility of encountering surprises. What the reader wants, I think, is an analysis that is both informed by theory and sensitive to historical nuance.
In this book, Brown provides such an analysis. He approaches the subject from the perspective of historical sociology, and in doing so he manages to maintain an unusually effective balance between historical explanation and sociological theory-building. Unlike many sociologists dealing with history, he never oversimplifies the complexity of historical events in the rush toward premature theoretical closure; and unlike many historians dealing with sociology, he doesn’t merely import existing theories into his historical analysis but rather conceives of the analysis itself as a contribution to theory. His aim is therefore quite ambitious – to spell out a theoretical explanation for the spectacular growth and peculiar structure of American higher education, and to ground this explanation in an analysis of the role of college credentials in American life.
Traditional explanations do not hold up very well when examined closely. Structural-functionalist theory argues that an expanding economy created a powerful demand for advanced technical skills (human capital), which only a rapid expansion of higher education could fill. But Brown notes that during this expansion most students pursued programs not in vocational-technical areas but in liberal arts, meaning that the forms of knowledge they were acquiring were rather remote from the economically productive skills supposedly demanded by employers. Social reproduction theory sees the university as a mechanism that emerged to protect the privilege of the upper-middle class behind a wall of cultural capital, during a time (with the decline of proprietorship) when it became increasingly difficult for economic capital alone to provide such protection. But, while this theory points to a central outcome of college expansion, it fails to explain the historical contingencies and agencies that actually produced this outcome. In fact, both of these theories are essentially functionalist in approach, portraying higher education as arising automatically to fill a social need — within the economy, in the first case, and within the class system, in the second.
However, credentialing theory, as developed most extensively by Randall Collins (1979), helps explain the socially reproductive effect of expanding higher education without denying agency. It conceives of higher education diplomas as a kind of cultural currency that becomes attractive to status groups seeking an advantage in the competition for social positions, and therefore it sees the expansion of higher education as a response to consumer demand rather than functional necessity. Upper classes tend to benefit disproportionately from this educational development, not because of an institutional correspondence principle that preordains such an outcome, but because they are socially and culturally better equipped to gain access to and succeed within the educational market.
This credentialist theory of educational growth is the one that Brown finds most compelling as the basis for his own interpretation. However, when he plunges into a close examination of American higher education, he finds that Collins’ formulation of this theory often does not coincide very well with the historical evidence. One key problem is that Collins does not examine the nature of labor market recruitment, which is critical for credentialist theory, since the pursuit of college credentials only makes sense if employers are rewarding degree holders with desirable jobs. Brown shows that between 1800 and 1880 the number of colleges in the United States grew dramatically (as Collins also asserts), but that enrollments at individual colleges were quite modest. He argues that this binge of institution-creation was driven by a combination of religious and market forces but not (contrary to Collins) by the pursuit of credentials. There simply is no good evidence that a college degree was much in demand by employers during this period. Instead, a great deal of the growth in the number of colleges was the result of the desire by religious and ethnic groups to create their own settings for producing clergy and transmitting culture. In a particularly intriguing analysis, Brown argues that an additional spur to this growth came from markedly less elevated sources — local boosterism and land speculation — as development-oriented towns sought to establish colleges as a mechanism for attracting land buyers and new residents.
Brown’s version of credentialing theory identifies a few central factors that are required in order to facilitate a credential-driven expansion of higher education, and by 1880 several of these were already in place. One such factor is substantial wealth. Higher education is expensive, and expanding it for reasons of individual status attainment rather than for societal necessity is a wasteful use of a nation’s resources; it is only feasible for a very wealthy country. The United States was such a country in the late nineteenth century. A second factor is a broad institutional base. At this point, the United States had the largest number of colleges per million residents that the country has even seen, before or since. When combined with the small enrollments at each college, this meant that there was a great potential for growth within an already existing institutional framework. This potential was reinforced by a third factor, decentralized control. Colleges were governed by local boards rather than central state authorities, thus encouraging entrepreneurial behavior by college leaders, especially in the intensively competitive market environment they faced.
However, three other essential factors for rapid credential-based growth in higher education were still missing in 1880. For one thing, colleges were not going to be able to attract large numbers of new students, who were after all unlikely to be motivated solely by the love of learning, unless they could offer these students both a pleasant social experience and a practical educational experience — neither of which was the norm at colleges for most of the nineteenth century. Another problem was that colleges could not function as credentialing institutions until they had a monopoly over a particular form of credentials, but in 1880 they were still competing directly with high schools for the same students. Finally, their credentials were not going to have any value on the market unless employers began to demonstrate a distinct preference for hiring college graduates, and such a preference was still not obvious at this stage.
According to Brown, the 1880s saw a major shift in all three of these factors. The trigger for this change was a significant oversupply of institutions relative to existing demand. In this life or death situation, colleges desperately sought to increase the pool of potential students. It is no coincidence that this period marked the rapid diffusion of efforts to improve the quality of social life on campuses (from the promotion of athletics to the proliferation of fraternities), and also the shift toward curriculum with a stronger claim of practicality (emphasizing modern languages and science over Latin and Greek). At the same time, colleges sought to guarantee a flow of students from feeder institutions, which required them to establish a hierarchical relationship with high schools. The end of the century was the period in which colleges began requiring completion of a high school course as a prerequisite for college admission instead of the traditional entrance examination. This system provided high schools with a stable outlet for its graduates and colleges with predictable flow of reasonably well-prepared students. However, none of this would have been possible if the college degree had not acquired significant exchange value in the labor market. Without this, there would have been only social reasons for attending college, and high schools would have had little incentive to submit to college mandates.
Perhaps Brown’s strongest contribution to credential theory is his subtle and persuasive analysis of the reasoning that led employers to assert a preference for college graduates in the hiring process. Until now, this issue has posed a significant, perhaps fatal, problem for credentialing theory, which has asked the reader to accept two apparently contradictory assertions about credentials. First, the theory claims that a college degree has exchange value but not necessarily use value; that is, it is attractive to the consumer because it can be cashed in on a good job more or less independently of any learning that was acquired along the way. Second, this exchange value depends on the willingness of employers to hire applicants based on credentials alone, without direct knowledge of what these applicants know or what they can do. However this raises a serious question about the rationality of the employer in this process. After all, why would an employer, who presumably cares about the productivity of future employees, hire people based solely on college’s certification of competence in the absence of any evidence for that competence?
Brown tackles this issue with a nice measure of historical and sociological insight. He notes that the late nineteenth century saw the growing rationalization of work, which led to the development of large-scale bureaucracies to administer this work within both private corporations and public agencies. One result was the creation of a rapidly growing occupational sector for managerial employees who could function effectively within such a rationalized organizational structure. College graduates seemed to fit the bill for this kind of work. They emerged from the top level of the newly developed hierarchy of educational institutions and therefore seemed like natural candidates for management work in the upper levels of the new administrative hierarchy, which was based not on proprietorship or political office but on apparent skill. And what kinds of skills were called for in this line of work? What the new managerial employees needed was not so much the technical skills posited by human capital theory, he argues, but a general capacity to work effectively in a verbally and cognitively structured organizational environment, and also a capacity to feel comfortable about assuming positions of authority over other people.
These were things that the emerging American college could and indeed did provide. The increasingly corporate social structure of student life on college campuses provided good socialization for bureaucratic work, and the process of gaining access to and graduation from college provided students with an institutionalized confirmation of their social superiority and qualifications for leadership. Note that these capacities were substantive consequences of having attended college, but they were not learned as part of the college’s formal curriculum. That is, the characteristics that qualified college graduates for future bureaucratic employment were a side effect of their pursuit of a college education. In this sense, then, the college credential had a substantive meaning for employers that justified them in using it as a criterion for employment — less for the human capital that college provided than for the social capital that college conferred on graduates. Therefore, this credential, Brown argues, served an important role in the labor market by reducing the uncertainty that plagued the process of bureaucratic hiring. After all, how else was an employer to gain some assurance that candidate could do this kind of work? A college degree offered a claim to competence, which had enough substance behind it to be credible even if this substance was largely unrelated to the content of the college curriculum.
By the 1890s all the pieces were in place for a rapid expansion of college enrollments, strongly driven by credentialist pressures. Employers had reason to give preference to college graduates when hiring for management positions. As a result, middle-class families had an increasing incentive to provide their children with privileged access to an advantaged social position by sending them to college. For the students themselves, this extrinsic reward for attending college was reinforced by the intrinsic benefits accruing from an attractive social life on campus. All of this created a very strong demand for expanding college enrollments, and the pre-existing institutional conditions in higher education made it possible for colleges to respond to this demand in an aggressive fashion. There were a thousand independent institutions of higher education, accustomed to playing entrepreneurial roles in a competitive educational market, that were eager to capitalize on the surge of interest in attending college and to adapt themselves to the preferences of these new tuition-paying consumers. The result was a powerful and unrelenting surge of expansion in college enrollments that continued for the next century.
Brown provides a persuasive answer to the initial question about why American higher education expanded at such a rapid rate. But at this point the reader may well respond by asking the generic question that one should ask of any analyst, and that is, “So what?” More specifically, in light of the particular claims of this analysis, the question becomes: “What difference does it make that this expansion was spurred primarily by the pursuit of educational credentials?” In my view, at least, the answer to that question is clear. The impact of credentialism on both American society and the American educational system has been profound — profoundly negative. Consider some of the problems it has caused.
One major problem is that credentialism is astonishingly inefficient. Education is the largest single public investment made by most modern societies, and this is justified on the grounds that it provides a critically important contribution to the collective welfare. The public value of education is usually calculated as some combination of two types of benefits, the preparation of capable citizens (the political benefit) and the training of productive workers (the economic benefit). However the credentialist argument advanced by Brown suggests that these public benefits are not necessarily being met and that the primary beneficiaries are in fact private individuals. From this perspective, higher education (and the educational system more generally) exists largely as a mechanism for providing individuals with a cultural commodity that will give them a substantial competitive advantage in the pursuit of social position. In short, education becomes little but a vast public subsidy for private ambition.
The practical effect of this subsidy is the production of a glut of graduates. The difficulty posed by this outcome is not that the population becomes overeducated (since such a state is difficult to imagine) but that it becomes overcredentialed, since people are pursuing diplomas less for the knowledge they are thereby acquiring than for the access that the diplomas themselves will provide. The result is a spiral of credential inflation; for as each level of education in turn gradually floods with a crowd of ambitious consumers, individuals have to keep seeking ever higher levels of credentials in order to move a step ahead of the pack. In such a system nobody wins. Consumers have to spend increasing amounts of time and money to gain additional credentials, since the swelling number of credential holders keeps lowering the value of credentials at any given level. Taxpayers find an increasing share of scarce fiscal resources going to support an educational chase with little public benefit. Employers keep raising the entry-level education requirements for particular jobs, but they still find that they have to provide extensive training before employees can carry out their work productively. At all levels, this is an enormously wasteful system, one that rich countries like the United States can increasingly ill afford and that less developed countries, who imitate the U.S. educational model, find positively impoverishing.
A second major problem is that credentialism undercuts learning. In both college and high school, students are all too well aware that their mission is to do whatever it takes to acquire a diploma, which they can then cash in on what really matters — a good job. This has the effect of reifying the formal markers of academic progress-grades, credits, and degrees — and encouraging students to focus their attention on accumulating these badges of merit for the exchange value they offer. But at the same time this means directing attention away from the substance of education, reducing student motivation to learn the knowledge and skills that constitute the core of the educational curriculum. Under such conditions, it is quite rational, even if educationally destructive, for students to seek to acquire their badges of merit at a minimum academic cost, to gain the highest grade with the minimum amount of learning. This perspective is almost perfectly captured by a common student question, one that sends chills down the back of the learning-centered teacher but that makes perfect sense for the credential-oriented student: “ls this going to be on the test?” (Sedlak et al., 1986, p. 182). We have credentialism to thank for the aversion to learning that, to a great extent, lies at the heart of our educational system.
A third problem posed by credentialism is social and political more than educational. According to credentialing theory, the connection between social class and education is neither direct nor automatic, as suggested by social reproduction theory. Instead, the argument goes, market forces mediate between the class position of students and their access to and success within the educational system. That is, there is general competition for admission to institutions of higher education and for levels of achievement within these institutions. Class advantage is no guarantee of success in this competition, since such factors as individual ability, motivation, and luck all play a part in determining the result. Market forces also mediate between educational attainment (the acquisition of credentials) and social attainment (the acquisition of a social position). Some college degrees are worth more in the credentials market than others, and they provide privileged access to higher level positions independent of the class origins of the credential holder.
However, in both of these market competitions, one for acquiring the credential and the other for cashing it in, a higher class position provides a significant competitive edge. The economic, cultural, and social capital that come with higher class standing gives the bearer an advantage in getting into college, in doing well at college, and in translating college credentials into desirable social outcomes. The market-based competition that characterizes the acquisition and disposition of educational credentials gives the process a meritocratic set of possibilities, but the influence of class on this competition gives it a socially reproductive set of probabilities as well. The danger is that, as a result, a credential-driven system of education can provide meritocratic cover for socially reproductive outcomes. In the single-minded pursuit of educational credentials, both student consumers and the society that supports them can lose sight of an all-too-predictable pattern of outcomes that is masked by the headlong rush for the academic gold.