If there is a consensus in America about college education, it’s that every young person should get one. Census figures show that college graduates enjoy an average income 40 percent higher than that of workers with only high-school diplomas, which is largely why almost 70 percent of every high-school class now goes on to higher education. Conventional wisdom suggests that a high-tech economy will need these better-educated workers, and that rising rates of college enrollment are a reassuring sign that America remains a meritocracy, a land of opportunity.

However, these same trends—the widening income gap, the mounting legions of college freshmen—are also open to a decidedly different and very ominous set of interpretations. A growing number of scholars believe that the vast expansion of higher education in the United States has been unhealthy for society and academe alike—and the sociology department at Penn happens to be home to two of higher education’s most prominent pessimists.

Dr. Ivar Berg, professor of sociology, and Dr. Randall Collins, Dorothy Thomas Professor of Sociology, rank among the most frequently cited sources of scholarship critical of the effect that spiraling educational requirements have had on work life in the U.S. Though neither would deny that college study can be a personally rewarding experience, both Berg and Collins have raised serious concerns about how “credentialism” has transformed college campuses into tollbooths on the road to middle-class respectability. Having used two entirely different methods of inquiry to arrive at their conclusions, both sociologists contend that higher education has gained vast public subsidies by promising to increase workplace productivity and improve social mobility—while failing at both tasks.

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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 03/01/06

Failing Grades
By Noel Weyrich

Illustration by Richard Borge

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