The Conspicuous Consumption of College

The Chinese higher education system is at a similar place as ours is today: too many college graduates are chasing after too few well-paying jobs. Like us, the Chinese view the answer to be to turn all students into four-year college graduates. A blog in the NY Times about the situation in China notes that there is no way everyone can or should graduate from a four-year university (for the same reasons we hear in the United States) but nonetheless: “For Asian parents, a college diploma is the ultimate status symbol for their children.” The status symbol of a university degree is wrapped up in many values for Chinese and American education consumers: their high cost, the scarcity of top-level teachers and resources, public bragging rights about you or your child’s intelligence, and so on. I’m reminded of Ivan Illich’s phrase, “The university graduate has been schooled for selective service among the rich of the world.”

The conspicuous consumption of college as a status symbol in both Western and Eastern societies goes unexamined in this article, it is just a given. However, the monetary status of Harvard graduates versus state college graduates is truly more in our minds than in reality: studies show that college graduates from second-tier schools earn as much money as Ivy League graduates. Yet, that’s not really the issue; it is really more about image, prestige, and connection than it is about making more money. This is something I’ve believed for years, but it really hit home when I read in this article how there is an urgent need for skilled labor in China and India, but how government policies and family pride are pushing for college instead of job training. The article outlines how nonprofit and for-profit groups in China and India are jumping in to fill the void of vocational schools: “. . . hundreds of millions of young people need job-friendly skills, and many companies are desperate to hire skilled workers. According to the Chinese Society of Vocational and Technical Education, more than 95 percent of vocational school graduates find work.”

So I was a bit surprised to see the final question posed in this article:

While a college education is good for some, is it right for everyone? Should developing nations pay more attention to hands-on training for less academically inclined youth? Is it better to be a well-employed mechanic or chef, or a university graduate with a degree but no job?

With such great need for skilled workers it is surprising that there is a degree of shame attached to those who go into vocational fields, but such is the snobbery of education, even in a Communist country. It is a shame that countries like India and China choose to ape the Western education system, thereby doubling down on their investment in the social status of education degrees, the ongoing expansion of compulsory schooling to all ages, and using educational attainment, which is based on socio-economic status, as the dividing line for social class distinctions.