For Discussion: The College Degree as Social Status

I honestly don’t think about this issue much. Most of my time is spent trying to figure out why reading old books is relevant to anything, and realizing that I’m probably fighting a losing battle.

And I suspect many of us would initially go “pffft. How does a college give social status, unless it is Yale or Harvard?” I think the two posts below can help generalize that notion of status, though:

  • Kevin Carey, “Harvard vs. the Internet” – from the article: Harvard Summer School is an open admissions program taught by a combination of Harvard professors and people who are not Harvard professors. It markets itself as an opportunity to pay thousands of dollars to live in Natalie Portman’s old dorm, which is kind of creepy. And Harvard College does not accept credits earned from Harvard Summer School’s online courses.
  • Mark Bauerlein, “Glenn Reynolds on the Next Bubble Burst: Higher Ed” – Reynolds argues that a college degree is about giving a general sense that one is “educated” as well as a social network, as opposed to skills “valued in the workplace.”

You can see where I’m going with this. The “social status” comes from that sense one is educated, and yes, with whom one hangs out. Forget the fact that Harvard is indulging in some rather base behavior in its summer school: that’s an extreme of the idea that an education has general as opposed to specific value.

You’re more than likely reading this blog because you know the more specialized we get, the more things like “civics,” “religion,” “our heritage,” “treating people like human beings,” “literature” and “asking serious questions” fall away. The more specialized we get, the more we have answers that could fix everything, if only people would just admit we’re completely right about everything.

In other words, education has some value that is indeed more general. But not only is that tough to pinpoint, but it looks like it flows from something far more specialized.

Anyway, I’m just rambling. Your thoughts are welcome.


  1. The only point I can speak to is this: In my opinion, the ‘social status’ vibe coming from colleges isn’t a bad thing. If that pulls people in, that’s fine. To be sure, a student who leaves with the same attitude that he has become part of a really cool club has passed something by unnoticed – in other words, he has not learned anything about what it actually means to be ‘educated.’

    However, it is very hard to draw people into a school by any other mechanism than by making their institution seem exclusive and hip. Try to convince a future-oriented (or disoriented) teen that reading Plato is good in itself. You can forgive a dept if it wants to tell student X that he can do Y and Z with his degree.

    But along the way, something should happen. I remember that my own dept tried to sell itself by putting out materials and fliers trumpeting the different places students had interned, career paths they’d taken, and so on and so forth. But when I was in the actual program, this was not once spoken of. Instead, it was quite rigorous and focused on those eternal questions you point out in your post. Perhaps I was just never smart enough to figure out that no corporation gave a wit if I had contemplated Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed. But my school got me to care infinitely more about old texts than a job — by (in so many words) telling me that they would get me a job!

  2. I can’t really say much about social status either being denoted by a college degree or as a selling point for a school. My plan for as long as I can remember was to attend the State school in the town where I was born. My Grandpa went there, my aunt and uncle graduated there, my parents met there. I just never gave any other thought to it.

    I was being interviewed for a scholarship and the interviewers were absolutely convinced I would leave for another school. I had no idea what they were talking about.

    While I was there I saw little value in my impending degree and I tried to drop out repeatedly through the majority of the time I was in college- I was kept in by my best friend.

    I wanted to change my major to biology for 3 and 1/2 of my 4 years there, but convinced myself otherwise and completed the same program I declared when I applied to the school, the same one I’d decided on when I was 12 years old.

    Well, I sound negative (and un-aspirant) as hell, and what I’m getting at sounds even worse; I just never placed a lot of value on my degree, per se, felt it was a necessary-ish evil. I loved some of my classes and met some of my favorite people there, but don’t really FEEL the fact that I’m “comparable” in that sense to only 17% of the people in this town. In fact, most people I know and most people I work with regularly do have a degree so it seems to me like there is no club at all.

    On the other hand, the reason I only encounter others like me may be because I’m unknowingly benefiting from that social status.

    I claim to barely make a subsistence wage, but I know compared to many many many others- And all I do is sit around all day.

    And I may live in a small cramped apartment, but it is in the desirable part of town, it is maintained, lit, air conditioned, relatively clean–

    I have friends, who are also neither starving, living in squalor, nor possessing of calloused hands, with whom I can use big words and pretend to exchange lofty ideas-

    Sooooo maybe a college degree from any school does provide some benefit in terms of social status (and economic status, though that never seems to deliver as expected).

  3. The basics seem to be: those with doctorate degrees form a school to teach and give degrees. An accreditation is set up to confer recognized degrees. Students who wish to work in a field of work select a school which confers the respective bachelors degree. If a student wishes to teach, he purses a further higher degree.

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