The value of a degree, part 2

This is the second of two blog posts address the topic of how we understand the “value” of degrees. Here is the link to the original post from December 21, 2010: “What Value for a Degree?” Part 2: Inherent value.

To continue from yesterday’s post about the “relative value” created when education is a scarce commodity, today I’ll write about inherent value–that which we are assumed to obtain simply by completing an educational credential.

Governments are concerned with developing “human capital”, which is the value of the workforce as measured by people’s skills and capacities for economic production. The argument is that the “knowledge economy” requires more and different skills of the workforce. This assumes that everyone should have more education because education will develop these skills (as economic value that resides in people). So by extension, there is an assumption that education has an inherent value—as something that contributes to the economy through the gross increase of human capital—no matter whether there are better jobs waiting for the graduates.

An assumption of inherent value also means that a financial payoff is assumed for the individual—so there is (economic) value in education for the individual student (or graduate, at least). This dovetails with the current (neo-liberal) policy trend of privatising the sources of PSE funding, including through raising tuition fees. Individual value means individual benefit, and therefore individuals should pay for this benefit.

But as discussed in my previous post, education does not benefit every student equally, so taking an “average” increase to earnings over a lifetime—which is the most frequent means used to “prove” the monetary worth of an investment in PSE—is not the best means of assessing the positive effects of higher education for the most vulnerable/least privileged students, who could benefit most significantly from them.


In government policy there seems to be a confusion between an inherent value created by a university education (i.e. skills, training, knowledge) and the relative value of a scarce commodity. But what does this difference in concepts of “value” mean when it comes to public debates about education, and the kinds of policies that generate and are in turn influenced by those debates-?

It tends to mean that we fight for university accessibility primarily in the form of increased enrollments, then wonder why attrition rates are so high and why so many students seem to “fail” at maximizing the resources provided by universities (such as student services). It means that governments create targets for the number of university graduates to be “produced” and for the percentage of the workforce that should possess a degree, assuming the additional human capital will generate returns to national economic success–but that many graduates nonetheless find themselves struggling to get work due to a lack of jobs appropriate to their level of education. Never mind ballooning debt loads, since personal financial “returns” to education should take care of this (unequally distributed) burden.

But if there is no job waiting at the end of an expensive degree, then the personal “investment” made by the student is seen as a failed venture for which s/he takes primary responsibility (particularly if student debt is involved).

In the UK right now we can see a clear example of this logic at work. As the system has expanded continuing to use the elite model of governance, costs have increased while the economy has become increasingly volatile. Government response is to radically reduce funding for teaching and to allow universities to raise tuition. Students are told they must now pay for something that in the past was more or less free (i.e. for their parents), a situation that creates inter-generational resentment, producing as it does a lopsided distribution of payment for the lingering costs of expansion.

Yet students will continue to enroll (if places are provided), since university degrees are considered more necessary now, for more people, than ever in the past. It seems that the cost of education rises, and indeed the value diminishes, with increased demand–the opposite of how markets are supposed to work.