Photo of the day

What’s not to love from a “The Year in volcanic activity” gallery at the Atlantic. Wow!

An eruption of ash rises from Shiveluch volcano on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, at sunrise on December 5, 2017. 

Gennady Teplitskiy / Shutterstock
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Don’t go to college?

So argues Bryan Caplan, author of one of my favorite books ever– Selfish Reasons to have more kids– in his new book and this nice excerpt from it in the Atlantic.  As a good economist, Caplan of course recognizes that there is huge economic incentive for any single individual to get a college degree, but he makes an intriguing argument that, as a society, we have invested in credential inflation (lots of jobs now require a college degree that used to hire college graduates) and spend far too many resources putting our citizens through college to too little benefit:

How, you may ask, can anyone call higher education wasteful in an age when its financial payoff is greater than ever? The earnings premium for college graduates has rocketed to 73 percent—that is, those with a bachelor’s degree earn, on average, 73 percent more than those who have only a high-school diploma, up from about 50 percent in the late 1970s. The key issue, however, isn’t whether college pays, but why. The simple, popular answer is that schools teach students useful job skills. But this dodges puzzling questions.

First and foremost: From kindergarten on, students spend thousands of hours studying subjects irrelevant to the modern labor market. Why do English classes focus on literature and poetry instead of business and technical writing? Why do advanced-math classes bother with proofs almost no student can follow? When will the typical student use history? Trigonometry? Art? Music? Physics? Latin? The class clown who snarks “What does this have to do with real life?” is onto something…

The labor market doesn’t pay you for the useless subjects you master; it pays you for the preexisting traits you signal by mastering them. This is not a fringe idea. Michael Spence, Kenneth Arrow, and Joseph Stiglitz—all Nobel laureates in economics—made seminal contributions to the theory of educational signaling. Every college student who does the least work required to get good grades silently endorses the theory. But signaling plays almost no role in public discourse or policy making. As a society, we continue to push ever larger numbers of students into ever higher levels of education. The main effect is not better jobs or greater skill levels, but a credentialist arms race.

Lest I be misinterpreted, I emphatically affirm that education confers some marketable skills, namely literacy and numeracy. Nonetheless, I believe that signaling accounts for at least half of college’s financial reward, and probably more.

Most of the salary payoff for college comes from crossing the graduation finish line. Suppose you drop out after a year. You’ll receive a salary bump compared with someone who’s attended no college, but it won’t be anywhere near 25 percent of the salary premium you’d get for a four-year degree. Similarly, the premium for sophomore year is nowhere near 50 percent of the return on a bachelor’s degree, and the premium for junior year is nowhere near 75 percent of that return. Indeed, in the average study, senior year of college brings more than twice the pay increase of freshman, sophomore, and junior years combined. Unless colleges delay job training until the very end, signaling is practically the only explanation. This in turn implies a mountain of wasted resources—time and money that would be better spent preparing students for the jobs they’re likely to do…

The conventional view—that education pays because students learn—assumes that the typical student acquires, and retains, a lot of knowledge. She doesn’t…

College students do hone some kinds of reasoning that are specific to their major. One ambitious study at the University of Michigan tested natural-science, humanities, and psychology and other social-science majors on verbal reasoning, statistical reasoning, and conditional reasoning during the first semester of their first year. When the same students were retested the second semester of their fourth year, each group had sharply improved in precisely one area. Psychology and other social-science majors had become much better at statistical reasoning. Natural-science and humanities majors had become much better at conditional reasoning—analyzing “if … then” and “if and only if” problems. In the remaining areas, however, gains after three and a half years of college were modest or nonexistent. The takeaway: Psychology students use statistics, so they improve in statistics; chemistry students rarely encounter statistics, so they don’t improve in statistics. If all goes well, students learn what they study and practice.

Very interesting, and, I think overly pessimistic, take.  Far from me to throw out social science evidence, but to take social science, for example, I think statistical reasoning is hugely valuable in the real world!  This is not some esoteric matter of understanding what p<.05 means, but rather understanding causation versus correlation, multiple causation versus single causation, spurious causes, etc.  That stuff really matters in all sorts of domains.  Also important, conditional reasoning.   Surely we could do better teaching our students across the curriculum– and in our own domains, but I think this is somewhat of a glass half-empty take.

Caplan is right, we almost surely spend too many of our society’s resources sending people to college for whom it offers only minimal benefit.  That’s a real thing.  But, I also take his argument mean to improve what we are doing in universities.  I’d like to think I’m doing my part.

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