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04 Mar 2015

Does the growth in higher education mean a decline in the quality of degrees?

Miroslav Beblavy / Mariya Teteryatnikova / Anna-Elisabeth Thum

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In this paper the authors construct a theory about how the expansion of higher education could be associated with several factors that indicate a decline in the quality of degrees. They assume that the expansion of tertiary education takes place through three channels, and show how these channels are likely to reduce average study time, lower academic requirements and average wages, and inflate grades.

First, universities have an incentive to increase their student body through public and private funding schemes beyond a level at which they can keep their academic requirements high. Second, due to skill-biased technological change, employers have an incentive to recruit staff with a higher education degree. Third, students have an incentive to acquire a college degree due to employers’ preferences for such qualifications; the university application procedures; and through the growing social value placed on education.

The authors develop a parsimonious dynamic model in which a student, a college and an employer repeatedly make decisions about requirement levels, performance and wage levels. Their model shows that if i) universities have the incentive to decrease entrance requirements, ii) employers are more likely to employ staff with a higher education degree and iii) all types of students enrol in colleges, the final grade will not necessarily induce weaker students to study more to catch up with more able students. In order to re-establish a quality-guarantee mechanism, entrance requirements should be set at a higher level.

Miroslav Beblavý is Associate Senior Research Fellow , Mariya Teteryatnikova Assistant Professor,  University of Vienna and Anna-Elisabeth Thum is Associate Research Fellow at CEPS.