The Societal Consequences of Higher Education

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The advent of mass schooling played a pivotal role in European societies of the later nineteenth century, transforming rural peasants into national citizens. The late-twentieth-century global expansion of higher education ushered in new transformations, propelling societal rationalization and organizing, and knitting the world into a more integrated society and economy. We address four key dynamics: (1) Higher education sustains the modern professions and contributes to the rationalization of society and state. (2) The supranational and universalistic orientation of higher education provides elites with shared global cultural frames and identities, facilitating globalization. (3) Consequently, tertiary education provides a foundation for major global movements and sociopolitical change around diverse issues, such as human rights and environmental protection as well as potentially contentious religious and cultural solidarities. (4) Higher education contributes to the reorganization of the economy, creating new monetarized activities and facilitating the reconceptualization of activities distant from material production as economic. In short, many features of the contemporary world arise from the growing legions of people steeped in common forms of higher education. Panel regression models of contemporary cross-national longitudinal data examine these relationships. We find higher-education enrollments are associated with key dimensions of rationalization, globalization, societal mobilization, and expansion of the service economy. Central features of modern society, often seen as natural, in fact hinge on the distinctive form of higher education that has become institutionalized worldwide.




Schofer, E., Ramirez, F. O., & Meyer, J. W. (2021). The Societal Consequences of Higher Education. Sociology of Education, 94(1), 1–19.

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