Anglophone Higher Education is in crisis. You can’t read the news for long without being told this in one form or another. Whether it is put down to the demographic shifts of the mid twentieth century, globalization, the decline in manufacturing or the breakdown of the post-war social consensus, volumes like Higher Education in America, College Unbound or What Is A University For? provide various accounts of the problem, along with their preferred approaches. One set of solutions – or at least policies in that direction – have been announced by the Obama administration, and involve distributing federal loans according to various measurements including debt load to graduation rate ratio, and earnings after graduation. Whilst these will no doubt be effective in tackling the more appalling diploma mills, I think both these particular measurements have a serious flaw, and risk encourage university policies which restrict access to education rather than opening it up.
Firstly – and to take the line which probably sounds obvious coming from a university teacher in the arts and humanities – earnings aren’t the measure of an education. They could be a decent proxy measurement for certain kinds of institutions, particularly the for-profit sector and particular professional training schools. At the most practical level, if a college is claiming to prepare students for entry into a field such as nursing, but failing to educate them to a level where they can pass the qualifications which their profession demands, that will show up in lower average earnings. Sometimes education is undertaken for very specific economic reasons, and it might be appropriate to assess whether the students are being supplied with what they need to attain those specific goals. However, there can still be a massive gap between the quality of the candidates coming out of a college and the their employment rates. The teaching provided by one institution might be of exactly the same quality as that provided by another on the other side of the country, but the local job market might be very different. Measuring earnings will give a snapshot of how much the economy is shifting because of that college, but it often won’t identify the excellence of what goes on inside the institution.
Beyond the very specific situations in which the quality of a degree can be measured by the graduate’s suitability for a particular, narrowly-defined occupation, measuring earnings makes some very troubling assumptions about the purpose of education. There are individual benefits: personally I find it difficult to use the phrases “human flourishing” or “seeking the good” out loud without a slight twist of the mouth, but I do believe in them. Many students find their time at university immensely personally rewarding, in ways that cannot be measured economically but are no less real. Chatting with a colleague from the Theology department, I was interested to realize that though our departments have rather differently-sized intakes, and different admissions processes, we both tend to be “destination” departments. In other words, students tend to transfer towards us rather than away from us. This isn’t an assertion of superiority over other subjects, but it does interest me because it demonstrates the powerful pull for young people of what are often dismissed as useless, antiquated or abstract subjects. I don’t think of our students as desperately unworldly or old-fashioned (…!) but many of them obviously feel that Theology and English offer them something as serious and worthwhile as STEM or business. Nor do I think this should be the preserve of middle class students who may choose to take a degree – and then follow a career – which does not put them in a high earning bracket. If federal loan money is being directed towards institutions with higher-earning graduate, this surely risks opportunities being taken away from applicants who need a lot of financial support but who wish to have exactly the same chance to develop themselves and their sense of the world in a degree programme which does not, on average, lead to the big bucks.
That development, incidentally, is not merely individual and selfish. Wanting to have an expanded sense of life’s possibilities – in more than an economic sense – is not a matter to be kept within people’s own heads. I am often astonished by the idealism with which American commentators discuss higher education; relating it to social improvement, civic responsibility, political engagement, respect for other cultures, an appreciation of art and history, and all sorts of other things which are often lumped together under the category of “the American Dream” or “the American Project”. The structure of American degree programmes, with their majors, minors and General Education elements, look like a social engineer’s heaven to those working in the more rigidly-focused patterns of UK education. A recognition of the non-economic benefits – and indeed purposes – seems to be built into a lot of the US educational system. It would seem odd to deny all of this by creating incentives for institutions to neglect their social and cultural sides in favour of supercharging earning potential.
The second major problem with these sorts of measurements relates to this question of social benefit, and may be rather more pointed for those unimpressed by the ramblings of a literature scholar. Measuring the after-graduation earnings of students makes a massive assumption which neither history nor politics bears out: that the quality of a degree is what determines someone’s place in society. We do not live in a meritocracy where absolutely everything is distributed on the basis of skill, merit or virtue (and thank heaven we don’t – the satirical and dystopic origins of the very term “meritocracy” are often ignored). Powerful and entrenched interests have a huge effect on the operations of our economies, our political systems, our arts and culture and even our medical systems. University can often provide wonderful opportunities, skills and knowledge for young people, in ways which may transform their subsequent lives. But it does not mean that everyone graduating suddenly has the same family connections, the same network of friends and the same pool of money to draw on – or that they are subject to the same social prejudices.
Many professions now require work experience, internships, volunteering, etc, in order to land interviews. All of these are much more possible to students from more comfortable backgrounds, and with better connections. Not to mention the intangibles: the handshake, the tone of voice, the ability to just “fit” in a meeting. All these can be taught or acquired, but many students possess them already, and it gives them an advantage getting their feet on the first rung of the ladder. This is not to criticise students in that position, but to point out that we must do more for students from other backgrounds if they are to have the same opportunity. A measurement of earnings after graduation would encourage universities to do exactly the opposite. It would put pressure on institutions to admit those students who obviously already possess the connections, the schooling, the material resources and the cultural capital to walk straight out of university into a well-paying job. Or, more likely in the current climate, into an unpaid internship which they can afford, before becoming the logical candidate for a vacancy when others who cannot afford to work for free have dropped out. It is naive to imagine that a university can level every imbalance in our society by awarding degrees, and to award loan money on that basis surely sets up a system with totally perverse incentives. If higher education is to have real social benefits, we can’t measure those benefits in ways which warn universities off taking students from less advantaged backgrounds.