Collins, for instance, marvels at the common notion that producing more degree-holders will help more people achieve the American Dream, claiming the concept “has a kind of dog-chasing-its-tail quality to it.” Increasing the number of credentialed people competing for a finite number of jobs tends to ratchet up the educational requirements for those jobs without increasing anyone’s income. “Imagine if we said we want every school in the country to have a championship football team, that every team should win 90 percent of its games,” he says. “People would recognize the flaw in that thinking. But we say that about education all the time.”

Says Berg, “More and more lower-income people are attending college at higher rates than they ever did before. And they are taking jobs way below what college degrees would have gotten them years ago.” Graduates burdened by student loans discover that the job market is so glutted that they can’t find work that pays well enough to discharge their debts. “It’s a real menace,” he adds. “These kids are mortgaged to the hilt.” For many who entered college in hope of getting ahead in life, Berg says a degree may prove at best to be “a slightly porous parachute for a softer landing in the mobility stakes.”

In an opinion piece he wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2002, Collins argued that most problems on university campuses today stem from the proliferation of degree programs that attract waves of credential-seeking students. Entitled “The Dirty Secret of Credential Inflation,” the article describes a higher education system locked in a cycle of expanding access to degrees, which dilutes the value of those degrees in the employment market, which, in turn, drives a portion of those degree-holders back to campus for still more advanced degrees. “In principle,” he wrote, “credential inflation could go on endlessly, until janitors need Ph.D.’s and babysitters are required to hold advanced degrees in child care. People could stay in college up through their 30s and 40s.”

Among the plague of side effects brought on by credential inflation, Collins counts grade inflation, alienated students, and a “restless proletariat” of teaching assistants. The dirty secret in the article title is Collins’ observation that credential inflation keeps universities flush with tuition dollars, which help to finance the livelihoods of senior faculty such as himself. “Most intellectuals in liberal society, we take it pretty much as an article of faith that we need to expand education,” he says. “It’s also for us a rather self-serving argument. It provides our positions.”

In the 1970s, both Berg and Collins wrote now-classic books on the sociology of education that are commonly cited in most texts exploring the connection between school and the workplace. Berg’s pioneering Education and Jobs: The Great Training Robbery (1970) made the case that employers in government and industry were using educational credentials as crude hiring criteria with little regard for whether higher-paid college graduates actually made better employees than the high-school graduates they replaced. Collins’ book, The Credential Society (1979), cited historic precedent and the theories of Max Weber to argue that the spiral of credential requirements for white-collar work in America has been driven by the natural desire of an educated elite to preserve the best occupations in society for their offspring.

The Brooklyn-bred son of a Norwegian-born carpenter, Berg, 84, says he foresaw the working world’s increased emphasis on educational attainment when he returned home from the military in the 1940s. “I knew many kids who left the military and they were better students than me, but they wanted to get a skill,” he recalls. “Some said to me, ‘Ivar, you’re going to school for four years, you’re going to lose four years of income while I’m getting a skill.’ But I saw this coming. To get anywhere you’re going to need a degree, and I decided the one place a degree really made sense was the academy. I decided I really didn’t want to work. I wanted to write about work!”

Before arriving at Penn in 1979 to chair the sociology department, Berg enjoyed a long tenure at Columbia’s graduate school of business. As a senior research associate in its Conservation of Human Resources Project, he took note of how business managers were increasingly keen to hire college graduates to do jobs that had long been the province of mere high-school graduates. Employers, many of whom lacked degrees themselves, assumed that college graduates possessed skills and knowledge that would make them superior employees. In academic terms, this is called the theory of human capital, and Berg sensed that the theory would not survive objective analysis. “We fought WWII with four percent college graduates and 24 percent high-school graduates,” he says. “At the time there might have been 20 percent of CEOs with college degrees.”

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FEATURE: Failing Grades
By Noel Weyrich

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