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Educational Incentives

by Harold Sargent - 1975

The dramatic expansion of the post-secondary experience for American youth and the activity associated with these events have now been halted by equally dramatic restraints. This condition has produced some unusual suggestions from both ends of the philosophical and political spectrum.

The dramatic expansion of the post-secondary experience for American youth and the activity associated with these events have now been halted by equally dramatic restraints. This condition has produced some unusual suggestions from both ends of the philosophical and political spectrum.


It should be highly profitable to define what presently exists in the post-secondary educational world, but this reality is not immediately self-evident. We are hampered by culturally biased verbalizations, conventional wisdom, and previous mental commitments. Once we define the innumerable forces impacting on higher education we may then see more clearly how to adapt and modify these forces in order to preserve our remarkable heritage. A decade of rapid change in higher education is now behind us and although it is still too early to make value judgments about these changes, it may be time to seriously and analytically assess the underlying bases of the post-secondary educational domain, to describe what is happening and what has happened within our social structure that pull people into the secondary educational experience, for this is clearly the dominant characteristic of the educational scene.


Since 1948 there has been a rapid expansion in higher education enrollment and facilities. This expansion was encouraged by nearly every segment of the American people. Their efforts were sustained by the faith that a college educa­tion would guarantee graduates success and greater income. This faith was not blunted by evidence that many unskilled and skilled occupations were better paid than some occupations requiring degrees.


The nation's colleges and universities were being given signals during the 1960s as a result of high numbers of applicants requesting admission. Stu­dents, perceiving a scarcity of admission opportunities, were submitting sev­eral applications, and colleges receiving these applications were interpreting them as authentic requests for admission. Many prospective draftees wanted college admission to avoid possible service in Vietnam.


It would appear, even at this early date, that the remarkable development of higher education will perturb all existing social relationships and redistribute power and authority in much the same manner as did the Industrial Revolution. Unless regulated by the state, the same competition will also prevail between educational institutions much as it did during the Industrial Revolution between corporations.


It has been estimated that over 50 percent of high school graduates enroll in an institution of higher learning. This provides ample evidence that college attendance is the dominant experience of contemporary youth. [1] Traditional wisdom held that this condition resulted from obvious benefits of attendance at these institutions and, quite assuredly, these are acceptable and compelling reasons.


Only very recently has there been a stated need for a more searching inquiry into the real reasons for the increase in undergraduate college enrollment. The obvious answers are not convincing, and even the reasons surmised have no meaning unless placed in the context of the social factors reflected between the social institutions and penetrating the higher education domain—more fre­quently referred to as the post-secondary experience.


The condition and the sociological scene are aptly described by Talcott Par­sons and Gerald Platt in The American University. "The rapid increase in the number of the young going on to college in recent years clearly is no accident, yet the explanation of the rising rate of college attendance is variously inter­preted. For example, we hear that the prestige of a college education is so great it is sucking into college young people who previously would not have partici­pated and even drawing into college those who would rather not attend ('the compulsory university'). It has also been suggested that higher salaries for the college-educated and demands for technical skills in industrial occupations are forcing more youth to go to college and that this demand by industry has been the impetus for state and private funds to be diverted for such activities."  [2]These have been the explanations offered for the rise of higher education and for the early twentieth century these were acceptable generalizations. But in the beginning of this century social attitudes among the primary social institu­tions began to change relative to college-university attendance. The educa­tional complex in America and the attendant tensions and activity have created a new social institution, formerly referred to as higher education, which must be described and defined without resort to obscure, esoteric rhetoric. For as Parsons and Platt infer, these historical reasons explaining the remarkable attraction of the undergraduate collegiate experience are not too potent. "These explanations are not wholly convincing. Prestige of higher education does not emanate out of nowhere; something must lie behind its rising prestige in order to entice larger numbers of persons to perceive a college education in this way."  [3]


These authors infer a deeper, more generalized linkage with other social components in relation to the emerging concept of individual choice. "Thus the explanation of the rise in undergraduate college enrollments remains to be given unless the undergraduate environment is conceived in relation to the changing society and to the ways in which the undergraduate educational ex­perience links with that environment. The undergraduate environment is not a microcosm of the society, but there must be links between the university and society, just as there are links between the family and society." [4] Here, Parsons and Platt strike at the very heart of this new system and the resulting surmise is an ingenious stroke at a definition of this new social system. "The explanation at a general level lies in the role of citizenship in the societal community of the type of society which has been developing in the modern world. The older ascriptive bases of society are becoming attenuated; the particularistic sol­idarities of religion, ethnicity, localism, and class have been eroding as bases of status and even of relationship. The spread of higher education has contributed to this erosion." [5] As Emile Durkheim suggests, prevailing external institutional forces have molded the academic organizations in their image,   [6] but the irony that Durkheim did not anticipate has been the expanding influence base of academia and the subsequent attenuation of the influence base of some other social institutions.


The sociology of higher education seems an appropriate base for exploring the linkage of our primary social institutions and subsystems with the mechanisms providing the magnetic attraction of our citizens for higher educa­tion.


We are confronted with more than a casual relationship between the primary social institutions and their supporting subsystems as they relate to higher education. Each of them has seen in the academic system a means of enhancing their own system, which ironically has expanded the authority base of educa­tion and reduced perceptibly the roles of other primary social institutions. From an historical perspective the transition period for this authority transfer was brief. Consequently, the desire of these primary social institutions to utilize the academic system has resulted in remarkable supportive mechanisms which link and interlace these institutions to the academic system. As defined by Parsons and Platt, "Academia is part of the social system; it is the adaptive subsystem of the fiduciary complex of society and is allied with other fiduciary subsystems including kinship, national citizenship, and civil religion. The academic system is also linked to the cultural cognitive complex, to the be­havioral organism at the general action level, and to the societal community in the social system." [7] While there is little need or thought of power or politics within academia, nearly all aspects externally are reduced to these considera­tions.


Industry sought research expertise and the competence of graduates; the family sought upward mobility and security for their posterity; the government, both state and Federal, saw a means of solving social problems; and the church sought to maintain its relative position and in the end, according to Parsons and Platt, has been secularized. "Thus secularization, in and outside of academia, was needed to protect cognitive culture from transgressions from other symbol systems. Significantly, conflict between science and religion has passed from the scene. Indeed, men of the cloth now in their pastoral counsel­ing have become in part psychiatric social workers; in another direction the major Catholic universities have sought to have their curricula defined as secu­lar." [8] In order to accomplish these described goals a "guarantee of equality" concept was quite rapidly absorbed into the previous democratic concepts of this nation—individualism, reason, and capitalism. A probable incompatability of these concepts is yet to be explored. At this writing all systems are partici­pants in this web of circumstance, including education, from which there ap­pears to be no exit.


The development of higher education in modern society can be compared in many ways to the developing of the church in the middle ages. This develop­ment of the church is nowhere better illustrated than in Adams' book Mont-St. Michel and Chartres.  [9] Both achieved institutional dominance through the de­velopment and application of available incentives which conditioned youth for entry into the experience either as participant or employee. Membership was thought of as so desirable by total society that all other existing institutions supported, maintained, and depended upon its continued dominant status for social order.


The success of social institutions in growth and primacy is to a large extent dependent on the depth and breadth of the application of incentives. These incentives can be used to describe the relative influence a society has over individual lives and they can be applied within an institution or by part or all of society outside the institution in relation to itself or to other institutions. The degree to which people hold to a given belief concerning abstract concepts has historically been the strongest incentive to belong to or support a given institution. For example, one of the strongest possible incentives is the fear of damna­tion if eternal life is held as an article of faith. Primacy of a social institution is determined by the shared beliefs of any large group and to the degree that the application of incentives is thought possible by a majority comprising that group. In general, an institution will gain ascendency over the social institu­tions to the degree that the larger society determines that salvation or security is possible through the given institution. If society determines that the institu­tion is capable of delivering or preserving a person from destruction, failure, danger, and difficulty; if an institution can provide security, satisfaction, or success, to that degree it is conceived to be the source of salvation or protection. In an era where salvation or security is not considered important it can be expected that such social institutions will have reduced prestige.


As an institution gains ascendency there will be a tendency for other institu­tions to apply incentives in that direction. In the Middle Ages, institutions such as the family, school, industry, and government united to maintain the Church as the dominant institution for preserving and protecting them. Today the pri­mary social institutions are uniting to maintain the school to preserve and protect. This is most evident in current prevailing attitudes toward the col­legiate experience.


The traditional domain of higher education has been the manipulation of abstract concepts and related graphic perspective. A relatively small part of the general population experience joy through participation in this activity. As the intensity and breadth of incentive application will determine the percentage of people who will participate in higher education, then any additional percent of enrollment can be predicated by the type and degree of additional incentive which the total society is willing to provide.


For the purposes of this discussion I shall define "educational incentives" as those mechanisms inherent or developed in society which encourage, stimu­late, or coerce people to participate in the post-secondary educational experi­ence. These inducements are implemented through the mechanisms of promise, suggestion, or threat, which can be applied internally within an institution or externally by the larger society. The growth and primacy of higher educa­tional experience in America can be traced to the remarkable depth and breadth in the application of this social leverage. The dominant theme of our society is the collegiate experience and this experience is sustained by the cooperation of all social institutions through social, economic, cultural, psychological, and political means.


The incentives used to promote higher education as the dominant feature of society are ubiquitous, and this situation has been further promoted by two new phenomena: the Asian War and belief that admission to college is related to social justice.


The first incentives are provided within the family. Esteem and praise is won by children who can successfully participate in academic experience provided by schools. Children are often rated within the family circle by high or low grades. Parents can rarely accept poor academic showing as indicative of capabilities. A child is judged as "not working up to his ability" if he does not achieve academic success. Academic type children receive the greatest praise until high school, where athletes are accorded more honor, and as a reward are given "scholarships" in order to participate in the post-secondary educational experience.


The school itself uses the guidance counselor to further promote and channel students into higher education. For years counselors have been rated, and therefore the school itself, by how many graduates went to college. In some schools a picture of each student admitted to a college is placed on an "honor" bulletin board. Incentives such as this are quite powerful devices to incite students to greater efforts for college admission. In all schools a constantly recurring theme is that the academically superior students may enter college and those not proficient academically will do something else.


Newspapers systematically print the names of students admitted to college. This provides social approval at all levels and assures peer pressure for momentum in this direction.


Since 1940 there has been a consistent channeling of young males into col­lege. The Selective Service Act of 1940 sanctioned it, and this was a national policy until the advent of draft by lottery.


As the nation moved deeper into the Asian War this powerful incentive was available, and it provided sanctuary within the college from the draft. Although the collegiate experience had traditionally been a scarce commodity, parents placed unusual pressure on colleges and legislatures so that their sons and daughters could secure the academic experience. The fact that the brighter men were able to avoid the draft created still another incentive. No parent wanted it known that their child had to go into the service because he was not able to gain college admission. Since more and more people between seventeen and twenty-three years of age were located within the college, one who could not qualify became an outsider.


A most powerful incentive has been the availability of scholarships, grants, and loans to individual students for increased years of education. As additional students are sought, there will be recruitment for those less likely to enjoy this experience, and it is quite logical to assume that as this happens additional economic incentive will be required.


Religious institutions historically have provided incentive by giving large sums for building and operating colleges. In this nation the churches created the initial impetus for higher education. Similarly, industry and wealth within the commercial circle have been used to provide traditional incentive. How­ever, there has also been a social division created by a white-collar college man in the office and a non-collegiate blue-collar worker in the factory. Desire to get out of the factory has been a social incentive, and factory workers have sys­tematically insisted on their children's attendance.


In addition to the incentives relative to the interior of social institutions, there have been some special incentives which are not easily categorized, but which have appeared as the dedication to education accelerates.


As educational institutions grew in size and enrollment, bureaucracy created conditions similar to those available in industry, governmental agencies, etc. Expansion continues unrelated to existing need if resources are thought of as being guaranteed. Under these circumstances there is a felt need for expanded student enrollment.


Due to the scarcity of educated people in earlier times, we developed a soci­ety dependent on certificates and diplomas to demonstrate minimum prepara­tion and guarantee minimum income. This has been a powerful incentive to attend the necessary years of college to acquire sufficient credentials to guaran­tee degree of competition and, therefore, income.


Perceived external threat accompanied by patriotism created circumstances subsequent to the advent of Sputnik that provided incentives from different directions and for different purposes as evidenced by federal subsidy and grants.


A high percent of higher education was financed for years by foundations and individual bequests. Much of this money was used to reduce tuition costs and continue the availability of low cost college education.


The promise of upward social mobility has been a strong inducement, for the acquisition of a degree was seen as desirable in much the same way as the annual raise.


As technology relieved people of menial tasks, and as transportation ex­panded available time, more and more leisure time resulted. Much of this increase in available leisure has been devoted to attendance at institutions of learning.


The upward leveling of grades has provided the newest incentive, and al­though the reasons for this new development cannot be specifically identified, the net result cannot be disputed. Higher grades have a tendency to maintain the critical numbers of students resulting in added security for institutional personnel. This may be a logical incentive, yet it is audacious and dangerous since it strikes at the scholarly foundation of the university life—achievement through discipline.


The advent of falling collegiate enrollments will spur that segment concerned with such delivery to seek out new educational incentives which might prevent enrollment decline. There are also those academic leaders who advocate uni­versal collegiate attendance. A first impression might lead one to believe that this would be a difficult exercise since it appears that all available devices are being utilized. Since the educational delivery system is becoming more public, it would be reasonable to assume that new devices would follow patterns perti­nent to the public school model. Trial balloons have already been cast in this direction. One proposed new incentive, championed by R. J. Kibbee, would be the granting of free tuition to certain collegiate institutions or to units of the post-secondary delivery system. [10] Leaving all other evaluations aside, to con­sider this proposal as an incentive does not produce favorable conclusions. In public schools where tuition is free and compulsory only state laws can guaran­tee attendance. The public might perceive that if a service formerly considered scarce were made tuition free, the acquisition of such would bring no compara­tive advantage.


The other educational incentive extension would be increased economic payments. This would, of course, be a powerful incentive requiring collabora­tion of existing institutions on an unusual but not impossible scale. Those who need the experience of the manipulation of abstract concepts as a requirement for continued existence will seek it out at considerable personal sacrifice; those who do not enjoy this activity will avoid it at the loss of both social and economic advantage.


The ultimate incentive would be a resort to legal means requiring compulsory attendance. This is used in public schools, but not with total success. Reference to this device may appear ridiculous, but what is considered appropriate is determined by the Zeitgeist of the age. Who could have foreseen in 1900 the present favorable moral, social, and legal sanctions relative to abortion?


A partial summary of incentives used now, or in very recent years, by society to attract people to the post-secondary educational experience are as follows: peer pressure, social esteem, release from menial occupation, higher pay, counseling, parental pressure, scholarships, newspaper publicity, institutional gifts, glamorized college activity, military service exemption, government grants, loans, social pattern, acceptable mating, minority group support, and increased leisure time.


One of the most curious aspects of the expansion of enrollments in the post-secondary experience has been the relationship between additional en­rollments with increased costs and the resulting mechanisms to pay for this experience. As incentives increased, additional students went to college and as additional students went to college, the cost increased. In order to provide funds to guarantee that deserving needy students could go to college, state subsidy became available. As subsidy became available more students wanted to go to college, which in turn created a demand for additional facilities. Each time an artificial incentive is applied it will create conditions necessary for more incentive or new incentive.


The social and financial incentives presently available in our society to de­velop and maintain the post-educational experience as the dominant theme in our society are remarkable. Only recently have there been symptoms that the love affair between higher education and the American citizen is abating. As Bereiter explains, the social systems have created a situation where personal choice is being reduced by the availability of social mechanisms guiding people toward one choice. [11]


The intent of this presentation has been for an objective, dispassionate defini­tion of the underlying causes attracting students to the experience of higher education. With such information we should be able to more accurately assess our present dilemmas and to look with some clarity to the future. We should not be seeking instant or easy remedies, and for every action recommended we should anticipate the many and varied consequences.


Education is in a state of transitional flux. Solutions to the problem vary from the elimination of educational institutions on the one hand to the adoption of life-long education on the other. One philosophy advocates expanded educa­tional attendance. Should it be successful, we could expect an increase over existing incentives accompanied by social sanctions at predictable incremental levels. At the first level would be increased grants, loans, exemptions and vouchers. At the same level or at the next incremental level would be free tuition for various levels and types of instruction. At the next incremental level would be economic payments for attendance. The ultimate sanction would be proposals for compulsory attendance also at various levels and at various units.


At the other side of the philosophical spectrum we have those who maintain that personal freedom can only be enhanced by a reduction of incentives. [12] At the first level would be the reduction of described social sanctions which impel people into the educational system. At the next level there would be an elimina­tion of laws requiring compulsory attendance beyond the adolescent stage. At the extreme there would be a complete elimination of any sanction, legal or social, requiring institutional education.


If the analysis in this paper has validity, the percentage of those attending the post-secondary educational experience is a matter of incentive application de­termined by society through various means. Considering the tremendous social gains in personal and social freedom, some thought should be given to consoli­dation of existing gains. If history has anything to tell us it is that when social revolutions extend their gains too far a reaction tends to eliminate some or all of existing gains. What we have attempted to do with education in the United States can be described as a most noble social experiment. Perhaps modifica­tion and adaptation applied with a little wisdom will enable us to transmit a remarkable concept of human development to our children and our children's children. If this happens it will no longer be a noble social experiment, it will be a society in which each individual is enobled.



[1] Employment of High School Graduates and Dropouts, October 1972; Bureau of Labor Statis­tics, "The High School Class of 1972," Special Labor Force Report 155, U.S. Department of Labor, 1973.

[2]   Talcott Parsons and Gerald M. Platt. The American University. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973, p. 187.

[3] Ibid., p. 188.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Emile Durkheim. Education and Sociology. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1956.

[7] Parsons and Halt, op. cit.

[8] Ibid., pp. 313-314.

[9] Henry Adams. Mont-St. Michel and Chartres. Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1963

[10] R. J. Kibbee, Higher Education Daily, Washington, D.C., November 16, 1973.

[11] Carl Bereiter, "Must We Educate?" Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 55, No. 4, December 1973, pp. 233-236.

[12]   Ibid.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 77 Number 2, 1975, p. 269-278
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1283, Date Accessed: 10/25/2021 12:31:40 AM

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