When your degree loses value…

There is a coming crisis in the world of postsecondary education. I’m not talking about lowering endowments or fiscal crisis; I’m talking about too many students. Our degree system is flooded with unqualified students, and more and more they’re not being held to a meritocratic standard. The degrees that people are “awarded” are being valued less and less over time.

The explicit function of a degree is to signal merit; implicitly (as Foucault pointed out) it also serves as a class marker. Because of government initiatives and the sensibility that anybody could complete a degree and adjusting standards to make it happen (see yesterday’s post ), degrees are failing to serve either purpose.

I claim some authority in making this prediction simply because I have a bad tendency of being right with these kinds of things. I was warning friends and family about the housing market in 2005; I also predicted the tech bubble’s bursting (though not as publicly or strongly) before the turn of the century. I’ve not always been right on the how – I thought our current fiscal crisis would be more deliberate on the part of overseas investors – but I have an annoying track record on pessimism. So I’m warning people now – the way that degrees are valued are going to change, and sometime in the next five to ten years.

I’m not certain what the outcome of this will be. I don’t think standards are going to suddenly increase; there simply hasn’t been the prepatory work at the grade school and secondary school level. One possible trend is an increased spread in the value of where one goes to school. This is definitely a class-based trend, due partly to income and partly because it runs counter to what older and non-traditional students do (see my research from last year, “Wearing Work Clothes”).

Conversely, we see technorati concentrating on the explicit skills as a screening method. Google has used complex math problems on billboards to screen applicants, and productivity and work gurus (I think it was Seth Godwin, but I could be wrong here) have explained how to sell yourself as having the skills of an MBA without actually taking an MBA. This is easier in some professions than others, so it might not be viable everywhere.

Regardless, the status is not quo. It might be that whuffie (as conceptualized by Cory Doctorow) or something very much like it, will end up replacing not money, but degrees and credentials. Maybe we can leverage this breakdown in information signaling to our advantage, rather than be caught in a morass of chaos. I’ve been advocating that my wife write a book on teaching for a couple of years now. She’s got excellent ideas, and proven implementations. But more importantly, once she’s written that book (or released it online, or whatever), she is no longer a professor in a small Midwestern college – she will be a professor who has written a well-received book on how to teach. (And yes, I really think it’ll be well-received. I’m rather impressed with her pedagogical methods; in case you couldn’t tell, I’m a bit of a pedant, which doesn’t always go over well with students.)

But that’s only one route – and much like I could see the implosion of the housing market (or to a lesser extent the internet bubble) – I can see it coming, but might be very very off on how things end up working out.

Regardless, the actions we can take as individuals are obvious. Sure, continue with a degree program if you’re in one. Make sure that you work your informational whuffie. Take classes for more than just a check mark; actually learning the skills and synthesizing them all together is key.

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One Comment

  1. Maura
    January 25, 2009

    class issue? gee, ya think? 🙂

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