In a post on education at CT, Chris
floats a hypothesis for commenters to shoot down if they want to.
However, since most of the commenters agree with Chris, it looks like Iâ€™ll have to provide the other side of the debate. I’m also not linking to any evidence, though I discussed a fair bit of it here
Iâ€™m going to argue, contrary to Chris and most of the commenters on his post that thereâ€™s no reason to suppose that, in aggregate, the proportion of the population undertaking post-secondary education is too high, and every reason to continue trying to remove obstacles to participation in education for students from poor and working class backgrounds. Further, I donâ€™t think credentialism is an important factor in explaining observed changes in participation in education or the labour market.
A basic problem in assessing the argument is the need to get the background conditions right. Roughly speaking, over quite long periods, average education levels have risen greatly, but the wage premium for education hasnâ€™t changed much and neither has social mobility. In a static economy, that would suggest support for a credentialist hypothesis in which the additional education was simply a race for positional goods.
But the economy isnâ€™t static. The proportion of jobs in occupations that traditionally did not require post-secondary education is declining steadily, while the proportion in jobs requiring education is rising. Pretty clearly, this is the result of technological change leads to a steady expansion in demand for skilled/educated labour at the expense of unskilled labour.
Given this trend at the aggregate occupational level, it seems reasonable, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, to impute growth in average educational levels within occupations to changes in the work being undertaken
With this interpretation, we need a steady expansion in education levels just to keep pace with technological change. Where, for one reason or another, participation stagnates as it did in the US in the 1970s, an increase in the wage premium for educated workers is a likely result (this isnâ€™t the only reason for the boom in inequality in the US from the 1980s onwards, but itâ€™s one reason).
If weâ€™re going to get labour market conditions favourable to more social mobility and less inequality, itâ€™s not sufficient to expand access to education. Growth in education has to outpace the rise in relative demand for educated workers, and growth in access to education for students from poor backgrounds has to outpace the growth in participation among the middle and upper classes. On average, we havenâ€™t managed to do this, and itâ€™s not surprising therefore, that the results hoped for by advocates of expanded education havenâ€™t, in general, been delivered.
Turning specifically to credentialism, Iâ€™ll start with the labour market I know best, that for academic economists. The requirement for a PhD is now almost universal, which was not the case thirty years ago in Australia or the UK. In my judgement thatâ€™s because the knowledge and skills required have increased, and not because of credentialism. If lawyers, nurses and other professions similarly rely more on formal training and less on â€˜sitting next to Sallyâ€™, Iâ€™m willing to believe that similar processes are going on (in addition, the same technological changes that Iâ€™ve mentioned already mean that, whereas Sally once found an unskilled trainee useful for a wide range of tasks, she now finds him a burden who just gets in the way).
Among the pieces of evidence against the credentialism hypothesis, one of the most compelling, in my view, is that self-employed people have education levels comparable to, or higher than, those of the workforce as a whole. If education was a matter of getting a credential for employment, people planning on going into business for themselves would get a headstart by skipping it. There are lots of other bits of evidence pointing in the same direction. For example, wage premiums for education tend to be rise with years of experience, when, on the credentialist view, they ought to decay.
Iâ€™ve been careful throughout the above to refer to post-secondary education rather than university education. Thereâ€™s a pretty good case to be made that technical areas of education are in more need of expansion than traditionally â€˜academicâ€™ areas, at least in the English-speaking countries. But the idea that expansion of post-secondary education as a whole can or should be reversed is, in my view, mistaken.
fn1. There are some examples I wonâ€™t defend, such as most of the journalism/communications courses Iâ€™ve seen, but I think these are ‘exceptions that prove the rule’, marketing themselves on the basis of the success of professional qualifications in other fields.