Disarming the College Degree Arms Race

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Illustration By Elena Okhremenko
Che Guevara once declared that the duty of intellectuals was to commit suicide as a class; a more modest suggestion along the same lines is for the credentialed to join the uncredentialed in shredding the diplomas that paper over the undemocratic infrastructure of American life. A master’s degree, we might find, burns brighter than a draft card.

In 605 CE, a year after murdering his father and seizing the
throne, the Chinese emperor Yang Guang established the world’s first
meritocracy. Weary of making bureaucratic appointments solely on the basis of
letters of recommendation, Yang set aside a number of posts for applicants who
performed well on a new system of imperial examinations. In theory, any peasant
who took the trouble to memorize 400,000 characters?–?which
is to say, anyone who conducted six years of study with an expensive tutor?–?could
join the country’s political elite.

Over the centuries, as China’s scholar-bureaucrats grew
more powerful, their metrics of assessment became increasingly intricate. Those
who passed were stratified into nine grades, and each grade was further divided
into two degrees. Exam performance corresponded exactly to salary, denominated in piculs of rice; the top brass received more than 17
times as much rice as the lowest tier. But the true rewards of exam success
were considerably higher: besides the steady salary, bribe collection made it
very good to be a bureaucrat.

As time went on, more and more people took?–?and
passed?–?the exam’s first round. Test
prep academies proliferated. Imperial officials started to worry: there were
now more degree-holders than there were positions, which threatened to create
an underclass of young men with thwarted ambitions. When the Ming dynasty fell
in 1644, their successors, the Qing, resolved to make the test more difficult.
By the middle of the 19th century, 2 million people sat the exam, but just over
1 percent passed its first round; only 300 candidates?–?.016
percent?–?passed all three.

Failure could be discouraging. In 1837, after botching the
exam’s second round for a second time, Hong Xiuquan, an ambitious 23-year-old
from a village near Guangzhou,
suffered a nervous breakdown. The precocious Hong had come in first on the
county-level test, but after he turned 15 his family could no longer afford the
customary tutor. Nor could Hong afford to bribe the examiners, as many
test-takers did. The notional possibility that anyone could pass the test
concealed a bitter truth: for a poor countryman like Hong, making it past the
second round was all but impossible.

Sick and delirious, Hong began to see visions. While in the
provincial capital, he had encountered missionaries from the U.S. who gave
him a tract on Christianity. It made a big impression: soon Hong had a dream in
which he saw the Christian God remonstrating with Confucius about his
faithlessness. In another, angels carried Hong to heaven, where a man with a
long golden beard presented him with a sword and instructed him to rid China of its

Hong sat the exam twice more, failing both times. With each
failure, his reverie deepened. Eventually he convinced himself and a band of
other young men defeated by the test that he was Christ’s younger brother. A
consensus emerged among the converts that it was Hong’s destiny to build a
heavenly kingdom purged of sexual depravity. He assembled an army and began the
work of conquering China.

So began the Taiping Rebellion, the bloodiest conflict of
the 19th century. By the time Hong’s forces were defeated in 1864, 20 million
people had died.

According to many on the American left, the “elitist” is a
right-wing bogeyman sustained by the mendacious organs of the actual elite?–?the
moneyed one?–?and by the reactionary reflexes
of an anti-intellectual public. Working-class whites, we’re told, vote in the
interests of billionaires on the mistaken assumption that culture, not
economics, is the main political battlefield, and that godless eggheads, not
greedy businessmen, are their true class enemies. The 1-percenters bankrolling
the Tea Party thereby deflect the attention of “bitter clingers” away from the
wealthy and toward the clubby arrogance of the other 1 percent?–?the
fraction of American students who graduate each year from the top tier of

The eggheads make sensible targets. Over the last 30 years,
the university has replaced the labor union as the most important institution,
after the corporation, in American political and economic life. As union jobs
have disappeared, participation in the labor force, the political system, and
cultural affairs is increasingly regulated by professional guilds that require
their members to spend the best years of life paying exorbitant tolls and
kissing patrician rings. Whatever modest benefits accreditation offers in
signaling attainment of skills, as a ranking mechanism it’s zero-sum: the
result is to enrich the accreditors and to discredit those who lack equivalent credentials.

Jean Baudrillard once suggested an important correction to
classical Marxism: exchange value is not, as Marx had it, a distortion of a
commodity’s underlying use value; use value, instead, is a fiction created by
exchange value. In the same way, systems of accreditation do not assess merit;
merit is a fiction created by systems of accreditation. Like the market for
skin care products, the market for credentials is inexhaustible: as the
bachelor’s degree becomes democratized, the master’s degree becomes mandatory
for advancement. Our elaborate, expensive system of higher education is first
and foremost a system of stratification, and only secondly?–?and
very dimly?–?a system for imparting

The original universities in the Western world organized
themselves as guilds, either of students, as in Bologna,
or of masters, as in Paris.
From the first, their chief mission was to produce not learning but graduates,
with teaching subordinated to the process of certification?–?much
as artisans would impose long and wasteful periods of apprenticeship, under the
guise of “training,” to keep their numbers scarce and their services expensive.
For the contemporary bachelor or master or doctor of this or that, as for the
Ming-era scholar-bureaucrat or the medieval European guildsman, income and
social position are acquired through affiliation with a cartel. Those who want
to join have to pay to play, and many never recover from the entry fee.

Of course, one man’s burden is another man’s opportunity.
Student debt in the United
States now exceeds $1 trillion. Like
cigarette duties or state lotteries, debt-financed accreditation functions as a
tax on the poor. But whereas sin taxes at least subsidize social spending, the
“graduation tax” is doubly regressive, transferring funds from the young and
poor to the old and affluent. The accreditors do well, and the creditors do
even better. Student-loan asset-backed securities are far safer than their more
famous cousins in the mortgage market: the government guarantees most of the
liability, and, crucially, student loans cannot be erased by declaring
bankruptcy. Although America’s
college graduates are already late on paying nearly $300 billion in loans, they
don’t have the option of walking away from these debts, even if their careers
have been effectively transformed into underwater assets.

As the credentialism compulsion seeps down the socioeconomic
ladder, universities jack up fees and taxi drivers hire
$200-an-hour SAT tutors for their children. The collective impact may
be ruinous, but for individuals the outlays seem justified. As a consequence,
college tuitions are nowhere near their limit; as long as access to the
workforce is controlled by the bachelor’s degree, students will pay more and

One sort of false consciousness may be involved when a
low-income person votes Republican out of mistrust for the credentialed
establishment; another occurs when the credentialed establishment denies its
own existence. An article in The New Yorker last year demonstrated
what might be called the class unconsciousness of the credentialed. There
Jeffrey Toobin, a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law
School, profiled the
villainous Clarence and Virginia Thomas. Clarence Thomas was born in an
impoverished Gullah-speaking community on Georgia’s Atlantic coast, attended
Holy Cross and Yale Law School, and eventually became the second African
American to sit on the Supreme Court. Thomas’ hatred for the Ivy League is
legendary; he felt mistreated at Yale and has claimed that he suffered in the
job market because firms assumed he was the beneficiary of affirmative action.
Thomas likes to rail against “élites,” a term Toobin smirkingly quarantines in
quotation marks, as if the concept to which it referred were a chimera and not a
plain reality.

It would be astonishing enough for The New Yorker to
cast doubt in any context on the existence of an “élite”?–?even
as it insists on the word’s accent aigu–?but it is especially so in the context of the law,
where a guild-like structure is more  tightly
organized around vaporous prestige than in any other field. The confirmation of
Elena Kagan marks the first time in history that every single justice on the
Supreme Court has attended Harvard or Yale. And Supreme Court justices (with
the exception of Thomas) barely consider clerkship candidates who failed to go
to a top-five law school. Until the 1980s, Harvard and Yale never accounted for
more than half the justices, and until the 1950s, never more than one fifth.

When we ask ourselves whether populist hostility should be
directed against the rich or against the professional elite, the answer must
be, “Yes, please!” From 1980 to 2007, the financial sector grew from 4 percent
of GDP to 8 percent, but it’s shrunk since and may shrink further.
The medical sector, on the other hand, grew in the same period from 9 percent
to 16 percent?–?and is expected to account for a
full 29 percent of the economy by 2030. Goldman Sachs makes for an attractive
monster, but the bigger vampire squid may be the American Medical Association, which
has colluded in blocking universal coverage and driving up health costs since
World War II.

If not earlier: the AMA owes its authority to
America’s most notorious robber barons, who invented philanthropy as we know it
by establishing foundations capable of long-term, organized interventions in
the country’s political and cultural life. The first foundations poured money
into medical schools?–?but only if those schools
followed the example set by Johns Hopkins, which in 1893 had introduced what’s
now the standard formula: students attend four years of college, then four
years of medical school. Institutions that didn’t follow this model did not get
donations, and they also got denounced in a 1910 report sponsored by the
Carnegie Foundation. After the Carnegie survey published its “findings,” scores
of medical schools?–?schools whose students could not
afford the additional years of study now required, and nearly all of the
schools that admitted blacks and women?–?closed.

Today, we take it for granted that practicing medicine or
law requires years of costly credentialing in unrelated fields. In the law, the
impact of all this “training” is clear: it supports a legal system that is
overly complicated and outrageously expensive, both for high-flying corporate
clients who routinely overpay and for small-time criminal defendants who, in
the overwhelming majority of cases, can’t afford to secure representation at
all (and must surrender their fate to local prosecutors, who often send them to
prison). But just as a million-dollar medical training isn’t necessary to
perform an abortion, routine legal matters could easily, and cheaply, be
handled by noninitiates.

The standardization of these professional guilds benefited
undergraduate institutions immensely, a fact that was not lost on university
administrators. College presidents endorsed the Hopkins
model and the AMA’s consolidation of medical authority for good reason: in
the mid-19th century, bachelor’s degrees in the United States were viewed with
skepticism by the private sector, and colleges had a hard time finding enough
students. The corporate-sponsored consolidation of the medical establishment
changed undergraduate education from a choice to a necessity. Where once there
was indifference, now there was demand: “I want to be a doctor when I grow up,”
the child in the PSA says. “I want to go to college.”

No administration has embodied credentialism as thoroughly
as the current one. Of Obama’s first 35 cabinet appointments, 22 had a degree from
an Ivy League university, MIT, Stanford, the University
of Chicago, Oxford,
or Cambridge.
No one would advocate staffing the country’s ministries with wealthy imbeciles,
as was the custom under George W. Bush; but the President?–?a
meritocrat himself?–?has succumbed to what might be
called the “complexity complex,” which leads us to assume that public policy is
so complicated that you need a stack of degrees to figure it out. But major
political questions are rarely complex in that sense. They are much more
likely to be complicated in the Avril Lavigne sense, meaning that they
involve reconciling disagreements among competing stakeholders?–?or,
as the situation may demand, ratcheting them up.

Not all the demons identified by the Tea Party have been
phantoms. We on our side are right to reject rule by the 1 percent?–?and
so are they right to reject rule by a credentialed elite. Introductory
economics courses paint “rent-seekers” as gruesome creatures who amass monopoly
privileges; credential-seekers, who sterilize the intellect by pouring time and
money into the accumulation of permits, belong in the same circle of hell.

Americans have been affluent enough for long enough that
it’s difficult to remember there was once a time when solidarity trumped the
compulsion to rank. The inclusive vision that once drove the labor movement has
given way to a guild mentality, at times also among unions, that is smug and
parochial. To narrow the widening chasm between insiders and outsiders, we must
push on both ends. Dignity must be restored to labor, and power and ecumenicism
to labor unions. On the other side the reverse must happen: dignity must be drained
from the credential. Otherwise, the accreditation arms race will become more
fearsome. Yesterday’s medals will become tomorrow’s baubles, and the prizes
that remain precious will be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

Quadrupling the supply of gold stickers is one way to devalue
the credential; getting rid of the sticker system altogether  is another. In our pay-to-play society, many
of those toward the bottom of the educational pyramid are getting fleeced;
others, though, are getting a leg up. Because it’s callous and unreasonable to
ask the disadvantaged to decline opportunities to advance, subverting
credentialism must start at the top. What would happen to the price of a
bachelor’s degree if the 42,000 high school valedictorians graduating this spring
banded together and
refused to go to college? And is it too much to ask the Democratic Party to
refrain from running any candidate for national office who holds a degree from
an Ivy League school?

Then there are our own credentials. Che Guevara once declared
that the duty of intellectuals was to commit suicide as a class; a more modest
suggestion along the same lines is for the credentialed to join the
uncredentialed in shredding the diplomas that paper over the undemocratic
infrastructure of American life. A master’s degree, we might find, burns
brighter than a draft card.

Christopher Glazek is a senior editor at n+1,
from which this article was reprinted (Issue 14: Awkward Age). 
n+1 is a print magazine of politics,
literature, and culture published three times yearly.

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