Higher Education- Sorting and Signaling?

I want to riff off an interesting post by Tyler at Marginal Revolution about pedigree bias in economics departments. To give a brief summary, the top 30 economics departments hire almost exclusively from 6-10 PhD programs. The comments are interesting (read them) and there are a few themes I want to touch on here.

Underlying this entire discussion, for me, is this question- what are the goals of education? I mean this in its broadest sense, to include primary/secondary as well as post-secondary education. There are two primary purposes that instantly come to mind- preparation for the workforce; preparation for civic participation.

We can think of preparation for the workforce to include such things as discrete skills, such as those related to the use of technology to craft specific tools, such as principles of accounting. There are, quite obviously, a near infinite number of skills/tools that are direct preparation for a career. It makes little sense to attempt to enumerate those here.

Next, what do we mean by preparation for civic participation? I would argue that what is meant is the classic liberal arts education. It rests on the belief that there are some set of basic skills and abilities necessary to participate fully in our democratic society. For example, such skills as literacy, numeracy and knowledge of history and civics.

I would further argue that American education is actually something of a hybrid system. We are attempting to provide a basic education to enable civic participation, but we allow some specialization (even at the secondary level; think vocational schools) in furtherance of career objectives. Now, whether we do this well or not is obviously an open question. Obviously, geography matters (when talking about primary/secondary education), as does socio-economic status.

Here I’d like to introduce another twist to the argument, which will also serve as a jumping off point for discussing sorting and signaling functions. One of the critiques of schooling (emanating from the political left; note here left means true left, not liberal Democrats) is that the whole notion of a common school is merely a myth. The argument is that there has never been a Golden Age of public schooling, that our schools have been used primarily as a means to assimilate immigrants and to inculcate certain American values, while stripping immigrant groups of their native cultures. In other words, public schools were not these great democratizing/leveling institutions, but rather a tool of social control.

Now, how does questioning this myth lead us to viewing higher education as performing sorting and signaling functions? I would like to argue that accepting the premise of sorting/signaling does not eliminate higher education’s actual education function. It would be foolish to do so.

However, in accepting this argument, we are more clearly able to explain some of the outcomes of higher education like pedigree bias. I would argue that due to inherent inequalities in primary and secondary education, much of what is believed to be merit based admissions to universities is by and large sorting. I would not go so far as to make a claim that high school GPA and/or SAT scores have no intrinsic merit. However, I do hold that given how well these indicators correlate with family incomes, they ought to be problematic.

Now, many post-secondary institutions take applicant background into consideration. Sometimes this may be directly through affirmative action programs. And it is certainly true that many/most institutions realize the inherent inequality of our education system and seek to redress some of that imbalance in their admissions policies. However, these types of admits provide a very small percentage of any institution’s students. (I will leave aside, for now, the question about affirmative action and how it may benefit higher socio-economic status minorities over their lower SES peers.)

Now, if my argument is valid, we can see how admission to post-graduate studies is compounding this inequity. Professional schools and graduate schools look not only to an applicant’s standardized test scores and GPA, but also to the “quality” of their undergraduate institution. So, if certain types of students (middle to upper income) tend to attend the most prestigious undergraduate institutions, then we can expect post-graduate training to be similarly skewed towards these same students.

That same argument can be made with respect to career opportunities after completing post-graduate studies, so I’ll not recount the steps.

The final argument, then, is this- our higher education system is merely perpetuating the existing social hierarchy in the larger society. It is not serving as a great democratizing force. Sure, some less fortunate students do pass through the gates of Harvard and then on to an elite graduate program. But, by and large the people going through our elite universities and our elite professional schools, are the people whose parents have also trodden that very same path.

What is actually being assessed is not the student’s merit, but his/her family background and connections. And this should be troubling to anyone who believes, as I do, in using our education system as a means to redress inherent inequalities in our society.

UPDATE: Ron Brownstein also touches on upward mobility.


One thought on “Higher Education- Sorting and Signaling?

  1. sad but true- none of my voc tech students are going Ivy League anytime soon- no matter how talented- Good Luck with the blog bro.

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