There’s a vein of skepticism running through this Chronicle article on “Project Win-Win” that reveals a lot about the flaws in our system of higher education credentialing. The Project is designed to track down students who have earned enough (or almost enough) credits to merit a college degree but don’t have a degree and award them a degree.There are more people like this than you might think. But the author, Jennifer Gonzalez, questions the value of the effort:
Putting more degrees into people’s hands certainly contributes to the tally of Americans who hold them, although it does little to increase the nation’s educational capital.
I think this fundamentally misunderstands the nature of “educational capital.” That widely-used phrase has non-coincidental parallels with financial capital, because degrees are a kind of currency that has value in the labor market. Modern financial currency–money–is fiat currency. It has no intrinsic value. It’s simply worth what everyone collectively agrees it’s worth. That’s why money increasingly exists in the realm of pure information–your employer electronically transfers a piece of information to your bank on payday, which transfers another piece of information to a store when you buy something. Cash is a remnant of an earlier time when money was representative currency. Dollar bills are the descendants of paper bank notes representing a pile of precious metal in a bank that could be retrieved in exchange for the note, which was more convenient than carrying around piles of precious metal. Coins come from an even earlier time when people would actually carry around piles of precious metal. The stamp on the coin signified what kind and how much of the metal there was.
Accuracy in assaying and stamping–in credentialing precious metal–was phenomenally important to the economies of pre-fiat currency nations. Spain created the first world currency by shipping silver from its mines in the New World and stamping them into pieces of eight. This was so enormously good for Spain, and so correspondingly disadvantageous for bad-currency competitors, that in 1699 England hired no less than the smartest person in the history of the world, Isaac Newton, to become Master of the Mint, where he spent the last quarter-century of his life ruthlessly hunting down counterfeiters and converting English currency to the gold standard.
The point being, credentialing matters. The Spanish didn’t do anything to increase the total amount of silver on planet Earth. But there’s a difference between silver that’s buried in the ground and silver that’s brought to the surface, and between raw ore and an official government-minted coin that can be exchanged in for goods and services. Project Win-Win is producing the educational coin of the realm, and that increases the nation’s educational capital in a very real and important way.
I would say that from a minting standpoint universities in 2010 are a lot like European nations in 1699, but in some ways that would be giving universities too much credit. Even centuries ago it was obvious that currencies work better if they’re broken down into units and sub-units like quarters and dimes that can be used for economic exchanges of appropriate value or combined back into larger units if need be. Coins also have constant value; a quarter minted in 1970 is worth the same as a quarter minted today.
Modern higher education credentials, by contrast, are large and crude. Course credits are additive within a university and sometimes transferable between them, but they only have value in the market when converted to a two- or four-year degree. It’d be like having a job where you get paid in pennies but can only buy things with a fifty-dollar bill and never get change from the transaction. There are 34 million adults in America who report their highest level of higher education as “some college, no degree.” That’s a lot of precious metal wasted for want of a stamp.
And some universities seem to have odds ideas about the role of time in the process:
To preserve program integrity, colleges participating in Project Win-Win have established several criteria. Besides excluding people who were enrolled before 2003, a grade-point average of at least 2.0 is required to obtain a degree.
Ms. Fairburn remembers one call from the daughter of a woman who attended Southeastern Louisiana back in the 1930s. She called inquiring if her mother could receive her associate degree. The university declined the request because the mother’s coursework would not match the current curriculum requirements.
“Those sentimental calls are hard,” said Ms. Fairburn. “We want to maintain the integrity of the degree but at the same time serve the students. It’s a balance.”
That doesn’t make any sense. I earned a bachelors degree in 1992. It will never expire. I will be eligible for any job that requires a bachelors degree until the day I die. Since I earned a master’s degree in 1995, my graduate program has re-named itself, switched colleges within the university, changed leadership and (I hope) updated its curriculum with the times. But they’ve never sent me a letter demanding proof that I’ve updated my knowledge accordingly in order to continuing representing myself as a degree-holder from Ohio State. Why not give the woman a degree certifying that she completed the Southern Louisiana requirements from the 1930s? That’s what happened, no more or less so than her classmates with degrees. Ditto for everyone from before 2003.
In other respects, universities are much like 17th century Spain. The Spanish wouldn’t turn just anyone’s silver into a piece of eight. The key to their prosperity was controlling the mining and credentialing of precious metal. While universities today have a government-granted monopoly over the minting franchise, they’re actually in the mining business. You can’t just show up at their front door with a bag of silver. You’ve got to dig in their mines, on their terms and schedule. Exchanges between institutions are subject to a steep tax, if they’re allowed at all.
In an time when the most precious resources are buried in human minds instead of holes in the ground, we need another Newton to string up the clippers and counterfeiters and maximize the value of our cognitive gold.