There is an interesting article in the Times today about Students at Shengda College in central China rioting because their diplomas read “Zhengzhou University, Shengda Economic, Trade and Management College.” They thought that by paying extra tuition, they were guaranteed a diploma that only had the name of the more prestigious Zhengzhou University.
The natural reading of this is either “those Chinese are strange” or “this reflects the rapid social change in Japan.” But what if it should be read as an indictment of what a diploma stands for?
I have a bunch of diplomas: not only the BA, MA, and PhD, but a rather unusual Ph.C. awarded to those at UW who managed to pass the general exams, but were still dissertating. I’ll admit, I liked receiving my diplomas in the mail. It seemed like the symbolic guarantee that I was now “official” in some way. (My feelings on receiving the PhC were a bit different. I wondered if they were trying to give me a hint!)
I was never so naive as to think that any of these degrees guaranteed me a job. They might have opened some doors and closed others, but there was never the one-to-one correspondence in my mind. I get the feeling that for many students today, that is exactly what is in their mind. They know they need to jump through certain hoops to get the degree, but generally, they think of it as a one-to-one sort of deal. They pay their tuition, they get the degree.
We had a set of consultants come to UB and address a group of faculty. “Imagine,” they said, “that the university is in the business of making hamburgers. How do we make a good hamburger more efficiently?” A few in the room thought the analogy might be a wee bit flawed. Is the produce of the university a diploma? Is it training?
No, it’s neither of these things. Yes, a diploma often follows a successful completion of a course of study, though in most universities a significant number of students who pay tuition don’t get through.
Neither is it teaching a set of identified skills. While professors may have some learning objectives in mind when they design a course, and departments may organize a curriculum around a set of such objectives, paying tuition does not guarantee that a set of skills are passed on. In the university, such skills are really not even considered central to the mission.
What, then, do students get in return for their tuition? They get the opportunity to have greater access to an environment of discussion and research. In practice, you don’t have to pay tuition to get some access to these things–the university is in the business of disseminating knowledge far and wide. But tuition makes you a member of the club, and provides you with VIP access.
It’s a little bit like being a member of a church. Tithing doesn’t (normally) buy you into heaven, but it gets you closer to the congregation.
There are some obvious counter-examples. Graduate studies in law and medicine (or pharmacology) clearly provide licensing that leads more or less directly to a career. The same might also be said, to a lesser extent, of the MLS, and to an even lesser extent of the MBA. There are similar programs at the undergraduate level–both 4-year and 2-year–that similarly are gateways into particular professions.
The trick is, these particular areas–medicine and law–form the backbone of the university system. So perhaps the idea of the university that we with doctorates in philosophy hold, that of a place in which good conversations happen, is in fact the odd one out.
I wonder what would happen if someone started a diploma mill that required some pretty stiff, verifiable, accomplishments for entrance: say a 3.75 at a top high school, a 1500 or better SAT, and significant accomplishments in creative areas and athletics, for example. I wonder what the value of such a diploma would be.