Steven Brint has a fascinating piece in The LA Review of Books which tackles a lot of educational topics, including the heretical idea that, from an economic point of view, we might not need more college graduates*. But what I found remarkable was this description of our current collegiate system (boldface mine):
It is worth reflecting on the possibility that our educational institutions support the current state of social organization in the United States more effectively than heretics allow. Let’s imagine a world in which motivation is very important. Opportunities in this world are pyramidal. Fifteen percent of adults are professionals or managers, 10 percent or so are upper-middle class in income, and 1 percent is rich. But leaders feel it is important to persuade as many people as possible that they have a realistic chance of reaching these positions. In this society, the idea of opportunity has been central from the beginning to the legitimacy of inequality. Rags-to-riches stories still figure prominently in folklore. Nearly 30 percent of the population completes a college degree. Although college education is no guarantee of achieving a secure life in the upper-middle class, it is very nearly a precondition. Moreover, without colleges serving as pastoral warehouses for non-academically oriented students, too many young people would be put out on the labor market, raising unemployment rates and reducing wages. This is a consumer-oriented society and people need to feel they have or will have the means to enjoy the items they covet. At the same time, the work world is highly regulated. A few jobs require specialized skills that can only be acquired in technical programs, but most jobs are relatively routine. They require workers to know basic literacy and numeracy, but other skills can be picked up on the job. The most important requirements are that workers show up and do their jobs every day, feel comfortable working with people from a variety of backgrounds, and know how to find information they need in non-routine situations. Following the directives of supervisors is essential. Reliability and steady effort are highly valued.
This is why I refer to even the ‘elite’ universities as finishing schools: in general (unless you decide to acquire some very specific technical or analytical skills), they teach you how to look and act like a smart upper-middle class person. Many professional jobs, even some really high-paying ones, require long hours and a willingness to not buck the system or question, but technically, there’s not much needed (I don’t consider using Excel with some competency to be much in the way of technical or analytical skill). Brint continues:
This, of course, is the society in which we live. In this society, educational structures that might otherwise seem low-performing, expensive, and inefficient make perfect sense. Dedicated work is not required in college because it will not be required at work. In most jobs, showing up and doing the work is more important than achieving outstanding levels of performance. No one is excluded from the possibility of attending college and thereby competing for a ticket to the upper-middle class. Life is insecure and can be full of troubles below this level, so ambitions to succeed are high. If families and schools do not have the resources to prepare students for success in most cases, that’s fine, because too many well-prepared students would put pressure on the system to offer rewards that it cannot supply. In this world, inequality is legitimate, talent can always be identified, a regulated work force is possible, technical training is possible, adjustments for credential inflation are possible, the regulation of ambition is possible, and the elite is preserved in gilded educational enclaves.
Even among the elite, mediocrity doesn’t really ding you, risk taking does. This explains how we can so many supposedly smart people running things with such mediocre results. As long as you’re credentialed, you’re a person in good standing. Of course, not everyone has equal access to accreditation, but we’ll just pretend that’s not the case…
*I think a high-quality education should be made available to everyone. The problem is that, considering what most people get, it costs too much. We need to lower the price of college.