Let’s stop mixing up education and social capital


When people talk about the “value of a quality education,” they’re probably not talking about education. What does a “quality” education look like? It’s expensive. The money doesn’t really get you a better education. It gets you social capital.

Expensive schools trumpet the “value” of an education. At expensive liberal arts colleges, any public assembly could turn lethal if the audience starts a drinking game involving the phrase “value of a liberal arts education.” Meanwhile, public universities are just as skilled at recognizing the transformative power of education. They still don’t talk that much about how “valuable” it is, even though non-prestigious publics provide the best value.

Schools provide students with two incredibly valuable benefits: education and social capital. We talk about education a lot, but no so much about social capital.

When people shell out big time money for college, they’re paying for access to social capital.

What’s the value of graduating from UCLA or UC Berkeley over CSU Dominguez Hills or Cal State East Bay? Why would you get your MBA from USC or Stanford, and not Cal State LA or San Francisco State University? It ain’t the book learnin’, that’s for sure.

Let me provide an example. An undergraduate degree from the UC system (University of California) is generally regarded to be more prestigious or higher value than a degree from the California State University (CSU system). There are some exceptions — like specialized engineering or architecture degrees from certain CSU campuses. Admissions standards for UCs are higher, and they are more expensive from CSUs too.

But here’s the kicker: You can’t really find any person with direct experience who can credibly claim that an undergrad in the UC system gets a better education. I think that most people will promptly agree that education — what and how much you actually learn — is better in the CSU. The CSU is designed to teach undergrads, and we do it damn well, despite being starved for resources. Our students just know more about their disciplines when they graduate. I’ve gotten used to hearing, “I was so surprised to find out how much your students learned in college!” from other academics and employers who know our graduates. When I chat with our alums, I’m used to hearing about their surprise discovery that they learned a lot more in college than some of their colleagues who went to fancier universities.

Just up the road from us is UCLA, ranked among the ten best universities in the known universe. Students at UCLA who graduate with a BS in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology have taken two lab courses in their major. That’s right, two. Our majors in Ecology and Environmental Biology at CSU Dominguez Hills take a minimum of seven labs in their major, and often more than that. It’s not just that our majors know how to do stuff from taking labs, but they also take classes from experienced faculty. Who have chosen a career in teaching. The UC might have prestigious faculty, but as far as undergrads are concerned, they might as well not be there.

Frankly, we kick ass in preparing our majors, in our non-prestigious public university. If you want to learn, come to a CSU.

But, let’s face it, learning is only a fraction of what you need to succeed after college.

When it comes to the financial bottom line and the well-being tied to income, it’s the degree that matters, not the education. Education feeds the soul but it doesn’t put food on the table in a postindustrial society.

There’s a reason that New York socialite families freak out about getting their kids in the right preschool and testing into the right Kindergarten. You need that pedigree to get into the right high school, which is necessary to get into the right college, which is necessary to get the right elite job.

It’s not what you learn at these expensive schools that matters, it’s the social capital that you accumulate. You get personal connections, experience in the social milieu, and association with a prestigious institution. That’s what makes a difference. You want to learn? Come on over CSU Dominguez Hills. But wealthy students wouldn’t consider it, not because of the education, but because of the appearance.

I continue to be amazed that the people who benefit from fancy private schools pretend that that they go there for education and not about social capital. I don’t know if there’s a level of shame about it, or whether it’s just considered gauche. Clearly — and nobody can really contradict this notion with a straight face — when you go to one of these schools, you’re buying access into a social class. Low-income kids can go to these schools and perform just as fine as the rich kids. (Many immersed in high-prestige institutions get blinded and think that somehow rich people are smarter, and once in a while honesty slips out in an uncouth manner like this.)

I went to an expensive private school, Occidental College. (For what it’s worth, if you’re curious, it was a little cheaper than a UC and more than a CSU, because of need-based financial aid and need-blind admissions, which isn’t the case there anymore.) I don’t think that this particular college experience made me smarter or more talented or skilled than the people graduating from my current department. Are there better facilities there than at my current CSU campus? Yes. Is there any evidence that fancier facilities help people learn? I am not aware of any such evidence. Having taught the same course at both institutions in the same semester, I didn’t see anything that would support this notion. It’s obvious to me that the faculty at both places are, overall, dedicated and excellent.

The prestige of more expensive private institutions has a serious pull on those who emerge from them. For example, consider the Dumke Commons. This gorgeous new facility at Occidental College is named after Glenn Dumke. Who is this fellow? The top of his wikipedia page says that he was the Chancellor of the California State University system for 20 years, during its early heyday of excellence and growth. How is it that the extraordinarily expensive and relatively elite Occidental College gets the big-time donation for naming a new building, and not one of the CSUs? He did go to Oxy, and taught there and became the dean, before he moved on to a state university, then vice chancellor, then chancellor of the CSU system. When the time came for his family to donate money to have a building named after him, it was his old alma mater Oxy that got the nod; I am not aware of their specific motivations.

What I see, as an alum of Oxy and current faculty in the CSU, is that another fellow Oxy alum and CSU employee ended up with his name on the institution that offers more social capital to its graduates. Indeed, now part of that social capital is the fact that the former Chancellor of the CSU has a building named after him on the Oxy campus, and not on the CSU. That just shows you how impressive Oxy is. They got a donation to name a building after the CSU Chancellor, instead of a donation that could have gone to the CSU. (Our current Chancellor, Timothy White, did his undergrad work at a community college before he transferred to Fresno State. I would bet that when his name gets on a building, it’ll be within the CSU.)

The distinction between education and social capital is something that most wealthy people refuse to publicly acknowledge. This distinction is getting more unavoidable in my life outside work. The public schools in my city are great. You wouldn’t know that if you were to talk to a real estate agent or the majority of middle-class families. About 40% of the kids in my city, Pasadena, pay taxes for public schools but also spend additional money to send their kids to private schools. Most who can afford a private school pay for one, and even some people who can’t afford it do it anyway.

The only genuine problem with the public schools in Pasadena is the reputation, and all other difficulties flow from the reputation problem. Middle-class white families stopped sending their kids to public schools during the era of desegregation and mandatory busing. Now that resegregation is complete, many families are still staying away from the public schools, which have suffered from a lack of investment. The teachers in the public schools are better trained and more effective than most of the teachers in private schools. Once you take into account family income, student performance in our public schools is higher. Education isn’t the problem.

Middle-class families worry about the lack of social capital tied to our public schools and the prospects of getting into the right university. I realize that the social function of college is not so much to learn stuff — though that’s a very useful side effect — but to gain the credentials to garner further opportunity. And hopefully in the meantime people can be exposed to a broad variety of people and ideas to learn how to be a good human being, which is no small task. The credentials are more powerful if they are tied to prestigious organizations known for “educational quality,” which is connected to the influence of the people who emerged from the same or similar institutions.

The world, and particularly the US, looks like it’s bound for more economic and environmental hard times. My generation isn’t as well off as my parents, and it doesn’t look that good for the next one. I’m concerned about my kid’s welfare. I’m no rube, and I realize that going to a fancy college will help out his future economic prospects. (This line of thinking, and the ability to enact it, is exactly how privilege is heritable.)

If I were only focused on getting my kid into a prestigious university, and nothing else mattered, then I should be shelling out the 20-30K per year for a prep school, which will give him a pathway into a fancy Ivy League school. Or Stanford. People out here in southern California go nuts for Stanford. (My kid likes Stanford because of their marching band. It’s hard to argue with that line of reasoning.)

I’m not so sure that the ambition of an easier path into a prestigious college should come at the price of attending a private school in my city. I’m not talking about the price of tuition, but the personal cost of joining the inbred social environment in these prep schools.

There are three kinds of schools available in my city: privates, publics and charters. The charter schools, at least in my town, have the drawbacks of the publics, the drawbacks of the privates, but the benefits of neither. So let’s ignore those.

What are the pros and cons of public schools? They have well-trained and credentialed teachers, a robust educational agenda (my kid is in a middle school IB program), and the kids in the school come from throughout our community. The teachers are trained, and expected, to challenge students regardless of their level of preparation. The drawback of the publics are that the schools are underfunded, and the rich people look down our public schools, and as a result they provide little social capital.

The private schools are mostly white, mostly wealthy, and the student parking lot has way way nicer cars than the faculty parking lot. The teachers may or may not be trained as educators, and have received little to no training in how to differentiate instruction for students with different levels of preparation. So, kids who score well on tests are not likely to be challenged, and those with academic challenges probably couldn’t make it past the selective admissions process. But on the plus side, these schools offer a shit metric ton of social capital by letting you join forces with the 1%.

Diversity leads to a better education, and leads to the ability to see things from the perspectives of others. I can’t imagine how to engender basic respect and understanding for all people in the context of the rich prep schools in my city. Those things can come from home, and not necessarily from school. But as kids go through middle school and high school, peer influence grows and the influence of parents has to start sharing space at the table.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time hobnobbing with rich people, though I don’t really have the shoes or wheels to pass for one myself. My professional trajectory is the result of the social capital I gained from going to an expensive school, and my parents saw that quality education social capital would help their children do just fine, and they were right. My kid isn’t getting the same kind of social capital from his school as he would from the pricey school just down the road. But there are intangibles that come out of life experiences, beyond education and social capital. I think those are more critical, and that structures my preferences. I think we’re a lot better off forming friendships and working with one another if we don’t anticipate how much social capital we can accumulate by building a certain peer group.

I’m teaching at a university that offers its students as little social capital as possible. It feels like one of the best jobs ever. To really serve my students best, I need to provision them with as much social capital as possible. Because they wound up at CSU Dominguez Hills instead of another CSU or UC or private school, it’s clear they were short on social capital before arriving. For all of the students at the university, I can contribute to that goal by doing what I can to improve the image of the university in the eyes of the public. Which isn’t hard to do because expectations are sadly low, and because so many things rock about our campus. I can’t stand the phrase “best kept secret,” but I do think it’s apt.

As a mentor, I’m training researchers. But if I fail to give my lab members a dose of social capital along with that training, I’m not really helping them that much. I can’t give my students a Stanford or UCLA diploma, but I can give them less tangible capital that can serve them well. That’s one of the big reasons that I run my research program out of La Selva Biological Station. Because it’s a crossroads for so many people from so many places, my students make all kinds of professional and social connections. When we go to conferences, I introduce my undergrads around but they also are able to do the same favor for me. They gain the respect of grad students, postdocs, and faculty because they totally kick ass as scientists and field biologists. I make sure they have that opportunity to give that impression to others. Now that I’ve been doing this for a while, now just showing up and saying they’re from CSU Dominguez Hills gives them a little bit of a boost. I’m doing my darndest to build social capital for the members of my small lab family, in my corner of the world. And to make it count for the most, it’s best to call a spade a spade, and to speak transparently about social capital.

This post isn’t saying anything new at all, it’s just a fleshed-out example of the the fact: It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. The more we acknowledge this blatant truth in front of us, the better we can navigate among the biases that work against the less privileged members of team science.

10 thoughts on “Let’s stop mixing up education and social capital

  1. My father, who taught at Towson State (in Baltimore) always said you could get a great education at (nearly) any American College, if you were willing to work for it.

    I applaud your efforts to add social capital. Doing it through La Selva is brilliant.

  2. ” I think we’re a lot better off forming friendships and working with one another if we don’t anticipate how much social capital we can accumulate by building a certain peer group.”

    Agree – a funny thing happens when we see other people as, I dunno, people.

  3. My top-shelf education from 9th grade on (boarding school, University of Chicago, ivy-league grad program) was very much my fully internalized expression of my parents’ desire to accumulate social capital (which as first-generation college students who had achieved Ph.D’s they saw as intimately tied to intellectual capital). I’m grateful to them for so many reasons. But I’ve also come up against peculiar gaps. I didn’t learn to properly focus a microscope, for example, until my forties, when I took a microbiology class at the local community college. “Oh great, another hour of my life wasted looking at pink smudges” I thought, as I filed into the lab. And then, for the first time in my extensive education, an instructor showed me that using a microscope was a multistage procedure which, if followed properly, would allow even non-science types to see cool stuff. We didn’t look at a lot of stuff that hour, but what we looked at I actually saw. It was, as they say, eye-opening.

  4. Yes, I sure did! And I recommend it to everyone, as it’s far better than the present post on multiple axes.

  5. It’s also interesting when you look at the different types of social capital associated with different prestigious institutions. I did my undergrad at MIT, which is a different type of social capital than you get at Harvard or Yale or Princeton – we all knew that there were social differences between us and Harvard – which I suspect is also a different type of social capital than you get at a prestigious SLAC or than you get at a highly prestigious public like UC Berkeley or UMich Ann Arbor.

    I went to a public high school with a magnet program, and public elementary and middle schools, and the education vs social capital issue gave me a chip on my shoulder about public vs private K-12 (that persists to this day – I still have an instinctive negative reaction when people talk about sending their kids to private K-12) because I got so tired of trying to convince people that public schools weren’t inferior to private. Related irritant: People wanting to move to or stay away from certain local towns because of the “quality” of the public schools, which is at least in part a euphemism for how rich and white they are and how educated the parents of the students are.

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