What is a…university? Credentialing function edition

As I imagine all of these posts will be, the question of what a university is seems both straightforward and even banal.  However, as I’ll hopefully illuminate below, there is a lot to unpack in how we think of these institutions as well as how they function.  And, by understanding all that they can entail, we can have a more informed discussion about their future.  As I enumerate their attributes, I’ll also mention some of the disruptive innovations in the field and how they compare to the paradigmatic institution.

I suppose I should include a caveat here: while we can make this a more variegated canvas as we go, when I say “university” I mean all forms of post-secondary education, most specifically at this level: degree-granting institutions.   This covers everything from small, liberal arts colleges to large research universities.

This caveat provides me with my first social function.  Universities fulfill a credentialing function.  As many recent economic analyses have shown, the credential of the undergraduate education – the BA, BS, BFA, etc. – or higher has significant value, even in the current recession.  In the national discourse around higher education, there is often only an implicit relationship between the learning processes and personal/educational development students are presumed to have experienced in order to achieve the degree.  In other words, it doesn’t matter all that much to employers or policy makers if students undergo some form of bildungsroman, just that someone somewhere has vetted these students in some way.

For instance, in a recent speech about the future of higher education, Arne Duncan mentioned Governor’s State University as an important model. In addition to it’s being online (an attribute I’ll discuss below) Governor’s State is a competency based institution, meaning it doesn’t operate on the model where students have to take a whole class, for a whole semester, to get a grade and advance to the next class.  Instead, there are certain competencies that are outlined for each major or class: once a student has mastered these competencies (which could take more or less time for each student) they are allowed to advance.

Their degree, therefore, like most undergraduate degrees, performs a signaling function.  Though the university is often discussed as a sort of medieval institution, this current function shows it to be a thoroughly modern one.  In Anthony Giddens’ book The Consequences of Modernity, which is his 1990s account of globalization, he points to the importance of what he calls “disembedding mechanisms:”  “By disembedding I mean the “lifting out” of social relations from local contexts of interaction and their restructuring across indefinite spans of time-space.” The two major mechanisms he mentions are symbolic tokens and expert systems.  Symbolic tokens – like money – and expert systems allow local forms of value and expertise to get stretched across time and space.  Or, as he puts it:

Expert systems are disembedding mechanisms because, in common with symbolic tokens, they remove social relations from the immediacies of context. Both types of disembedding mechanism presume, yet also foster, the separation of time from space as the condition of the time-space distanciation which they promote. An expert system disembeds in the same way as symbolic tokens, by providing “guarantees” of expectations across distanciated time-space. This “stretching” of social systems is achieved via the impersonal nature of tests applied to evaluate technical knowledge and by public critique (upon which the production of technical knowledge is based), used t o control its form.

The undergraduate degree sits right at the intersection of these disembedding mechanisms of modernity.  Like the High School diploma, is supposed to act as a symbolic token which is guaranteed by a form of expert system, namely, the university faculty and their credential granting institution.  This allows its holder’s credential to travel through time and space.

There are many good reasons for needing something like this, and for the undergraduate degree having an economic premium.  But one can be demonstrated by looking at this recent big data project using IRS tax stats.  It’s an interactive map on the Forbes.com website.  The big headline is “40 million Americans move from one home to another every year.” This shows a fairly under-appreciated fact about the distinction between what migration analysts call flows and stocks.  For instance, if you click on Travis county, where I now reside, you can see that it has had a (stock) population increase of about 100,000 people between 2005-2010.  However, if you look at each year, you can see that this increase in the stock is just what is leftover from a dramatically higher flow.  In each of those years between 2005 and 2010, almost 60,000 people migrated into Travis country from other counties in the country, and nearly as many migrated out.  The 100,000 increase in stock is just what’s leftover in the flow of 500-600,000 people over the course of five years.  Keep in mind, these are also only the migrations in and out of Austin from within the US – though if you look at where on the map people are going and coming, it is pretty widespread.  40 million citizens moving around the country is more than 10% of the population.  Over a decade, this means the equivalent of every person in the country will have moved.

All of these people, moving in and out of cities far apart in our geographically enormous country likely have a wide variety of work experiences and backgrounds.  And many of them are likely moving for a job of one kind or another – some of them might be going to school (though most moving for school are likely going on to JDs, MAs or PhD many as most college students wouldn’t file their own taxes).  But employers and professional schools rely on the credential of the BA as an index of basic proficiency: they may need to call your references or ask for letters of recommendation from someone who is an authority of some kind, but your degree serves as an indication that you have completed the national requirements for proficiency as judged by some national accredited agency.  Your authority and proficiency is therefore allowed to stretch from the local context where you worked and went to school into the new place you are moving.

This also explains why the idea of digital badges is getting so much play.  In many ways, this is the major problem we are having with education as a whole in the current era.  The issue of credentialling is moving further down the education food chain, as we try to decide how we will give authority and how we will value expert systems from elementary schools to high school teachers.  The problem is that many forms of the most important kinds of learning do not respond to quantitative metrics of proficiency.  Perhaps more importantly, the economic function of this credential is being overvalued, to the extent that economic prowess is, perversely, now signaling educational proficiency.  Billionaires, as Diane Ravitch has lamented, seem to think that their ability to game capital markets qualifies them to reform US education.  More on this, later.

The flipside of this, is that, as this credential has become an economic necessity, it has very problematic effects on how students in higher education value and take advantage of that experience.  If the only goal is to get the credential in order to get a job, how you get there and what you actually learn becomes incidental.  Likewise, who teaches you (fulltime faculty, underpaid adjuncts, or – if the Venture Capitalists get their way, cleverly designed computers) and where you go to school are less important than the fact that you exchange time and money for a degree which guarantees you for employment in the US.  The problem, of course, is if the term “guarantee” is taken as a promise rather than a symbolic token: the central complaint of both the Occupy movement and the even more relevant Occupy Student Debt is that many people took the culturally appropriate actions in terms of securing the credential and this has yet to yield employment.

Obviously this is one of the central features of the crisis of higher education, but the credentialing function is only one of many social functions which the university performs.  Since I’m already nearing 1500 words on this post, I suppose I’ll save the others for future posts.  For a preview, I’ll just outline them briefly here:

Universities (for students) provide an efficient portal for access to faculty (experts), technology (computer labs, science labs), resources (libraries, databases), services (food, housing, health, fitness), and networks of other students (alumni, fraternal organizations, student activities, etc.) Organizing access to all of these – many of which are necessary for either the completion of the degree itself, which assist in providing the necessities of life while students concentrate on the degree, or which will be essential resources upon graduation – would be an onerous and expensive task if undertaken on an individual basis.

Universities also help produce learning experiences and research processes for students, faculty, and administration.  These are supposedly the central pursuits of the university, made possible by the unique configuration of forced and facilitated access and interaction the residential campus provides.  It is a truly, deeply important social function which seems greatly overshadowed by the focus on credentialing in the current conversation.

The cynic in me sees this isolated focus as the intentional and reasonable result of the financial philistines who have taken it upon themselves to reorganize this system.  The credentialing function of the university creates a fairly inelastic demand for its services.  This, in turn, creates a captive market of citizens willing to take on enormous loads of debt in order to acquire the credential.  The financial, economic and labor market functions are tied into this credentialing function, especially in the short term view of finance capital.  Arguably the learning experiences and research processes are more important for the long term economic development of the country.  But these cannot be measured immediately in terms of costs and benefits so they are more difficult to value and validate, except rhetorically.

I’m sure there are other functions I am missing – probably many – so it is good to line up the rest and hopefully expand on this list as we go.


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