Prevailing perspectives attribute higher education’s immense and increasing importance in modern societies nearly exclusively to the economic value of a college degree and role of higher education in the legitimation of stratification. This forecloses consideration of the possibility that higher education’s power and influence may derive, in part, from its own considerable moral or symbolic significance in modern culture. Through analysis of in-depth interviews with adult undergraduates in the United States I explore the meaning of higher education in contemporary culture, drawing principally on institutional theory. The bachelor’s degree emerges as the central and default indicator of not only intelligence but valued moral traits: responsibility, tenacity, and ambition. College completion confirms/constitutes graduates as agentic selves to both others and themselves, and indicates assimilation of scientific and cosmopolitan universalism. I suggest that these findings can be explained through three interrelated, institutionalized interpretation rules: education is a strong moral good, education changes the self, and education accesses the universal. And I argue that we must take seriously the insight—often made but little-explored—that higher education is a quasi-religious as well as an economic institution.
American Journal of Cultural Sociology – Springer Journals
Published: Jun 15, 2020