Viewpoint

The sociological eye means looking at things for what they are, as best we can given the blinders of interest and ideology, of cliché and ritualized belief. It is not an individual enterprise. Chaining our efforts together as a long-term network of theorists and researchers improves one’s own sociological vision, provided we make the effort. The sociological eye holds up a periscope above the tides of political and intellectual partisanship, spying out the patterns of social life in every direction.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

EDUCATIONAL CREDENTIAL INFLATION: AN INTERVIEW WITH RANDALL COLLINS


The following questions were posed by a Chinese on-line newspaper, The Paper [https://www.thepaper.cn]:


[The Paper:] 1. The Credential Society was published in 1979, but its Chinese edition has just come out. Therefore, I assume it is a good opportunity for you to review the days when you wrote it. So, after 39 years, do you still believe your observation and judgment of education and society? Has the educational system operated in the way this book presented in recent years?

Yes, inflation of educational requirements for jobs has increased quite a lot. In the US, the value of a 12-year (high school) diploma now is almost worthless for getting a job; it is only useful for entry into university to get a higher degree. Jobs that formerly had lower requirements, like police officer, now require a college degree, while a M.A. in Criminology or Criminal Justice is required to become a Police Chief. In the 1970s, when I wrote the book, a B.A. degree was becoming common for a job as a business manager; now most of these jobs require an MBA (as I  predicted). This has happened all across the spectrum of jobs.

[The Paper:] 2. Although the Credential Society focused on the U. S., it has been globally influential over the years. How do you evaluate its universal impact and value? In your opinion, is it applicable to other countries?

Credential inflation has become applicable world-wide in the last 30 or 40 years. The US began credential inflation earlier than most other countries; already by 1930 it had a higher percentage of university students and 12-year high school students; it started aiming for universal high school education in the 1950s, and now for universal university education. Russia (the old Soviet Union) and Japan were two other countries that developed mass high school and university systems early. Most European countries-- England, France, Germany-- had elite systems, with only a small proportion attending high schools (lycée, Gymnasium, etc.) and even smaller fractions attending university. They began to follow the US path of inflation in the 1960s and 70s, and then accelerated. Now many other countries-- for example, Chile, South Korea-- have pushed to a level where a large majority of the youth cohort attend universities; and it has become a major political demand-- how to provide free university education for everyone.

[The Paper:] 3. Since its publication, the Credential Society has caused persistent discussion. Has any relevant comment or discussion impressed you?

Originally my book was considered scandalous by many people. When I presented the original manuscript to my first publisher (University of California Press), they refused to accept it, even though it was under contract. A new publisher, Academic Press, published it, but then they refused to allow a mass paperback publisher (Anchor Books) to buy the rights to it, and Academic Press refused to issue it in paperback. So the book became hard to buy; and people would write to me to ask for a copy. Since it was written before the time of word-processing programs, the best I could do was send them a photo-copy. 

Over the years, the argument was known to specialists in sociology of education-- especially those with a more critical viewpoint; and several articles I had written on the topic were well known to students. The issue of credential inflation started becoming public after the 2008-9 financial crisis; and in the following years newspapers started carrying articles questioning whether a university degree is a good investment, because its value as a job payoff has fallen, while its cost has risen sharply.

[The Paper:] 4. What does this book mean to your academic career and your life? Has it influenced your other works?  

When the book was first published, I resigned my university position, because I felt it was wrong for me to work in the system that I had criticized. But the other books and articles that I published-- I worked in many other areas besides sociology of education-- resulted in receiving many job offers. I took a position that mainly consisted of doing research, and have published books that have had a good reception-- on sociological theory, creativity in intellectual networks, face-to-face social interaction, and sociology of violence. I stopped writing on credential inflation for many years, to work on other topics.

[The Paper:]  Are you satisfied with this book? If you were given a chance to rewrite it, would you like to make any modification or improvement?

To rewrite it now, I would need several research assistants to examine all the research that has been done of education and careers, education and its rising costs, education and social inequality. In general, the correlation between parents' social class and children's education has not changed from the 1930s through the present-- i.e. a huge increase in the percentage of children who go to high school, university, and advanced professional schools has gone up but stratification hasn't changed. The belief that more access to education would bring social equality has proven wrong.

On the theoretical side, the main thing that I would add to the book is to refine the concept of credential inflation as similar to monetary inflation. As economists have known for a long time, putting more money in circulation reduces the buying power of money. But the difference is, printing new money costs very little; and in the centralized banking systems we now have, it is possible to increase the money supply just by changing the procedures for making loans or to change the numbers in a computer. (This happens every day when the market value of a popular stock goes up.) But educational credentials are not just the paper that diplomas are printed on, but require much investment in school buildings, salaries for teachers and administrators, etc. Therefore: although monetary inflation theoretically has no limit, "printing" more educational degrees becomes very expensive when degrees are inflated and students spend more years of their lives in school. So the historical trend to inflate degrees goes through periodic crises-- either the students can't afford the degrees when their job payoff declines, or the government (or parents) can't afford to keep expanding the educational system. There was a mini-crisis like this in the 1980s, and again in the 2010s; and we can expect more such crises in the future. At some point, if 100% of the population is going to spend 20 or more years in school getting more and more advanced degrees, the cost of education becomes equal to almost the entire economy.

[The Paper:]  5. What research did you do for the book? What was the most challenging part when you wrote it?

Besides the theoretical analysis, I made two main research contributions. One was to assemble data to show how the job value of degrees has inflated during the 19th and 20th centuries in the US (the modern country that started credential inflation). I showed, for instance, that jobs as business managers required only high school degrees (or even less if one started as a family member or apprentice) until the 1950s. Surprisingly, even technical jobs-- engineers, the most essential technical job for modern industry-- was mostly learned by apprenticeship or on-the-job, rather than by formal education.  Traditionally in the West, lawyers and medical doctors, along with priests, were the main occupations that required university degrees; and even in these fields, people could learn these professions by apprenticeship. Abraham Lincoln, for instance, was a lawyer who never went to school, but learned law as an apprentice. The movement to require university and advanced degrees came in the late 19th century (in the US) and explicitly tried to make these fields more socially elite.

I would add here that if I were to revise The Credential Society today, I would add a section on how the big fortunes in the Information Technology area were made: Not by going to university to get a degree, but by dropping out of the university, to follow one's own innovations. This was the way the founders of Apple came to create the personal computer, and later the career paths by which Facebook, Google, and other digital empires were created.  (Apparently this is true in China, too, where the founders of Alibaba and Tencent were not academic stars, but failures in the exam system, who found experience in telecommunications work that gave them the idea of spinning off new products.) There is an important theoretical reason for this: the fortunes were made by creating a new technology, and it was too new to be taught in the universities. The creators went directly to the most advanced practitioners of technology of that day, examined their equipment, sometimes stole their best ideas or put them to new use, hired away the best technicians and engineers. For them to wait until they got their degrees would have put them behind in the race to invention.

This is one reason why the creators of high-tech industries and especially the entrepreneurs who make huge fortunes, are usually men. In the US, women have made great advances in getting into universities and advanced professional schools, and are the majority of the students now at these levels. But the educational degree pathway is a bureaucratic career pathway, step-by-step. Women increasingly get to be named the head of a big corporation now, but few women do what Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg did-- drop out and concentrate on the innovation, not on getting the degree.

I mentioned that The Credential Society made two main research contributions. The second one was to test the dominant theory about educational expansion, at the time I wrote it. This was the technological theory of education. It said that modern jobs become more complex and more technical, so in order to get a job in the modern sector one needs more education. This was a theory; no one ever tested it. I got data on many kinds of organizations, their educational requirements in hiring, and how technologically advanced they were. I found that the high-tech organizations of the time (i.e. the 1960s) had lower educational requirements than low-tech organizations; and that higher credential requirements were in high status organizations (such as elite law firms).  Economists favored the technical-skills argument; but they never measured whether advanced education really did provide the skills for the job. They developed another theory that education may not provide skills, but it is a signal that a person has some thing unmeasured which makes them good at acquiring skills. They never tested this either. In more recent years, the examples of people like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg have made some economists (or at least newspaper writers) recognize that entrepreneurship and innovation are not really what education teaches, and that there is a more direct route to the technological frontier.

[The Paper:]  6. The Credential Society has been well-known for its fierce criticism to the educational system. How did you realize the inequality of the educational system and start to query its rationality?

My father was a diplomat, and we lived in foreign countries while I grew up. Most of what I learned came from reading my father's books or books in the Embassy library.  My last two years in high school were an a prep school in New England, where most of the other students came from rich families, and the school taught us how to take the exams that would get one admitted to an Ivy League college. I went to Harvard, where everybody was proud of how much more elite they were than anyone else. What I learned about education at that point in my life was that it was stratified, some schools were considered more elite, and it was mainly children of rich families who went there; but even if your family wasn't rich (my father never owned a house until he retired), if you could get into an elite school, its high status would rub off on you too. (This is only partially true. I was never really accepted into the clubs of the rich kids; but I did become part of the academic elite.) Going to Harvard meant that you could go to graduate school at Stanford or Berkeley, and those degrees got you hired at a top research university. But the elite status of being a faculty member at those universities depended on doing the most famous research inside the network of researchers, and my professors were the best network I could have started from. I learned what topics were on the advanced edge, how to do their kind of research; even criticizing them and moving on to new theories was the kind of skill they favored. From my perspective now, I would say that elite research universities provide a kind of apprenticeship, or on-the-job training, by starting as a research assistant to famous professors. Academic research is the one job where an academic credential pathway coincides with actually learning the skill you will apply later on.

[The Paper:] Which theories affect your thinking at that time? Was it related to your own experiences? 

To sum up my early experiences: education clearly was related to stratification, since the elite schools were always bragging about how elite they were. But this was incongruous with what social scientists were teaching as a theory of education:  that education is a pathway to social equality.

When sociologists starting doing field research and survey research in the 1930s-1950s, they discovered that the most important division in people's lives was by social class. Research on social mobility (now called status attainment) found that the strongest predictor of a child's future job was the education of his or her parents. So the theory of meritocracy was developed: if a child could get more education than one's parents,  he/she would end up in a higher social class. Most research since that time-- from the 1960s until today-- concentrates on the first part of the chain: what factors lead from family to school attainment. (They paid little attention to the second part of the chain: once you have the educational degree, what determines what happens to you then?) In France, Pierre Bourdieu became famous in the 1970s, by showing that children acquire "cultural capital" from their parents, and this determines how well they do in school; Bourdieu also thought that this "cultural capital" would also affect would kind of jobs they would get, since the people doing the hiring want people who have the same cultural tastes as themselves.

My early work was done parallel to Bourdieu. Both of us were critical of the idea that expanding education would make a society more equal. The main differences in my work were: [1] to empirically criticize the theory that advanced technology was the reason why all societies were now demanding more education; [2] focusing on the mechanism of credential inflation, or the dynamics of the system over a long period of time.

[The Paper:]  7. The Credential Society presented an in-depth exploration in the educational system and employment of social sciences, but seldom mentioned natural sciences and engineering. Do you think that your analysis and inference also make sense to natural sciences?

Yes. First, to describe the history: as I mentioned, engineers were the last major profession to credentialize; the inventors and entrepreneurs who made the industrial revolution, the automobile revolution, etc. were not educated in professional schools of engineering, but from working with the machinery itself, trying out new combinations. Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were the Steve Jobs and Jack Ma of their day.  Yes, it is possible to create educational credentials in engineering and science, but this happens after the key developments begin, and it standardizes them so that they can be taught.

In recent years, as universities have been squeezed for funds (because of the rising costs of mass-producing credentials), they have encouraged engineering and science departments to connect more directly with entrepreneurs, or to become entrepreneurs themselves. This means, instead of focusing on the credential, focusing on getting into the entrepreneurial and technological networks themselves. 

Natural scientists also do "basic research" and here the careers within universities and research institutes are like what I described for my own career in social science. The universities are the center of these networks, and scientists learn how to innovate by apprenticeship to scientists who are already doing it.

So one can make an argument that natural science-- at least some of it-- really does have a technological and economic payoff. I have already suggested that following the academic route to credentials is not what the most famous innovators have done. But assuming that some of the credentials pay off, is it reasonable to expect that a majority of the jobs in a society of the future will consist of scientists and technicians? Especially if credential inflation goes up towards 100% of the population: does China really need 1 billion engineers and scientists, or the US needs 300 million?

[The Paper:]  8. In this book, you show your approval of credential Keynesianism and credential abolitionism as the solutions to the problems of education, do you still believe these? How do you evaluate their feasibility?

Political efforts to abolish credential requirements for certain occupations have been tried in the US, but have done nothing to slow the general trend. Keynesian economics was out of fashion with economists for many years, but since the 2008 recession "stimulus" spending has often been favored. Few people seem to realize that government expenditures on education are Keynesian, in the sense that they provide jobs both for teachers, payment for builders and other suppliers of material resources; they also keep full-time students off the labor market, and if they receive room and board, it is a transfer payment which puts more spending money into the economy. In the book Does Capitalism Have a Future? (written with Immanuel Wallerstein et al., 2013, Oxford Univ. Press), I suggested that in a future where computers take over human jobs, expanding the school system to everybody for lifetime learning would be a way to carry out socialism without calling it by that name.

[The Paper:]  9. According to the preface, despite your criticism to education, you had to work as a university professor for many years. What do you feel about this situation?

It is rather pleasant to work in a high-level research university, so my only objection to working there was my moral objection to living off an institution that operates on false promises. But it is interesting to work around intellectually creative colleagues and thoughtful students-- especially if they are more interested in intellectual discoveries than in getting credentials.

[The Paper:]  Have you made any attempt to change the educational system?

Hardly anyone in American schools objects to credential inflation, if they recognize it at all, because where there is a large demand for degrees, there is a demand for teachers.  My colleagues, if they think about it at all, would probably say that to criticize credential inflation is to attack their jobs.

[The Paper:]  10. Have you ever paid attention to China’s education and society? And do you have any academic interest on it? If so, please share your observation and thoughts.

Yes, both historically and for the present.  In my book, The Sociology of Philosophies [1998, Princeton Univ. Press], I wrote several long chapters about networks of Chinese philosophers. Their organizational base included the Imperial university and the examination system for government positions. The Han Dynasty had one of the world's earliest educational bureaucracies; and the Song Dynasty created the first period of credential inflation, which grew stronger in the Ming and Qing Dynasties. But although candidates had to pass an increasing number of exams and degrees, and some studied until they were more than 40 years old, the exam system only provided credentials for employment in the Imperial bureaucracy; unlike modern credentialism in the US and elsewhere, it did not spread to other kinds of jobs. So dynastic China had credential inflation that was confined to a rather small elite.

Since the Deng Xiao-ping market reforms, Chinese high schools and universities have expanded, and the intense competition among students to enter elite schools is famous. There are some differences from the US system of credential inflation, however. The Chinese system is more "meritocratic" in the sense that university admission depends so heavily on academic examination. The US system, under political influences, uses multiple criteria, including scores on national exams, but also grade point averages in high school, participation in athletics and other extracurricular activities, desirable personality, and attempts to include ethnic minorities in (unofficial) quotas. As a result, I would say the US system tends to be somewhat anti-intellectual, whereas the Chinese system is more narrowly focused on intellectual performance. The US system also has a trend to "grade inflation" as most students now are awarded the top grades, with the effect of diluting the criteria of excellent performance; the Chinese system appears to uphold more strict standards. This is probably a reason why US students tend to score low in international comparisons, whereas Chinese students score high.

I would like to draw one theoretical conclusion from this comparison. The US economy has performed strongly, almost all the time for over 100 years. It performed well when we had a small elite school system; it performed well when we expanded to mass education; it continues to perform well even when we dilute the standards and undergo both credential inflation and grade inflation. My conclusion is: it does not matter how the school system performs. Not everyone educated in American has to be a scientist or engineer; if only 10 percent of them are good at this, nevertheless we have such a large system that it fulfills our technical needs. And other features of the US society foster entrepreneurs of the Steve Jobs/ Thomas Edison type; so the economic dynamism is there.

China, in proportional terms for its large population, does not have the extreme credential inflation found in the US.  Perhaps it will get there in the future. Or perhaps it will go a different path.


A new edition of The Credential Society will be published in 2019 by Columbia University Press.