Berg and his research assistants interviewed managers, scoured the existing literature, examined previous manpower studies, and pored over employee files at government agencies, insurance companies, banks, and industrial firms. Among clerks, salesmen, technicians, and junior executives, they could find no dependable relationship between formal education and worker productivity. In some workplaces where high-school graduates and college graduates worked side-by-side at the same jobs, the college graduates on average were more frequently dissatisfied and had higher rates of turnover and lower performance ratings.

The introduction of jet travel in the late 1950s gave Berg’s team a unique opportunity to test whether cognitive skills are best honed in school or on the job. To run the nation’s new system of air-traffic control, the Federal Aviation Administration hired and trained 507 men, half of whom had no formal education beyond high school. Years later, when Berg and his assistants evaluated the group’s job performances by counting the numbers of awards the men had earned from supervisors, half the college graduates had earned no awards, while a little over one-third had earned two or more. Among high-school graduates, though, only 30 percent had earned no awards and 43 percent had earned at least two. Results were mixed among controllers who had some education past high school. “Education,” Berg concluded, “proves not to be a factor in the daily performances of one of the most demanding decision-making jobs in America.” As Berg saw it, the “great training robbery” of the postwar years was the massive waste of government spending on an education system that does little or nothing to enhance worker productivity. At the time, annual expenditures on U.S. higher education stood at about $17 billion. Today, the figure is $270 billion, of which $55 billion is supplied by state appropriations, with another $81 billion coming from federally funded student financial aid.

Education and Jobs sold surprisingly well when it was published, and it influenced a young Stanford economist named Michael Spence who would go on to win the 2001 Nobel Prize for his work on “market signaling.” Spence was among the first to apply rigorous economic theory to Berg’s notion that employers were using education as a simple screening device and not as an indicator that job applicants with more education possess superior skills. Spence’s theory is that, even if education is devoid of any practical content, a high level of education can “signal” to an employer that an individual is productive enough to endure the costs in time, effort, and money to advance.

Randall Collins, 56, was raised in a very different world than Berg’s. The son of a Foreign Service official in postwar Europe who attended New England prep schools, Collins developed an interest at an early age in world power politics, social-class distinctions, and the subtle interpersonal rituals he observed among diplomats. After his undergraduate years at Harvard, he earned his Ph.D. at Berkeley during the 1960s, in the midst of the Free Speech Movement. Collins came to Penn in 1997 from the University of California at Riverside, and Ivar Berg served on the sociology department committee that recruited him. Soon after arriving here, Collins published The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change, a 1,118-page opus that examines the social history of Western, Indian, and Asian thought.

The Credential Society, Collins’ first book, was a slim volume by comparison, though it remains among the most often cited works in education research. An award-winning sociological history, it examined the U.S. system of higher education as a projection of the American national character, which embraces individualism, status-seeking, and free-market competition. The book argued that the rapid expansion of high school and college education in the 19th century was not provoked by any increased economic demand for white-collar employees with particular cognitive skills. It was driven by the desire of prosperous and middle-class families to secure status for their progeny. Similarly, he wrote that the rise of university professional schools of medicine, law, and engineering was a way to monopolize career paths for highly educated elites while wiping out competitive avenues of apprentice-type on-the-job training.

“I thought about this quite deliberately, he says. “The atmosphere of being a student in the 1960s meant being concerned about inequality and how you can change it. Sociologists who were studying social mobility were doing surveys that pointed to education as the single crucial factor that seemed to determine people’s careers. So I said, ‘All right, I want to do something to study this but I want to look at the whole organizational system.’”

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FEATURE: Failing Grades
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