Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Value of college education

From Christopher Caldwell's column:

... You can go to college to get civilized (in the sense that your thoughts about your triumphs and losses at the age of 55 will be colored and deepened by an encounter with Horace or Yeats at the age of 19). Or you can go there to get qualified (in the sense that Salomon Brothers will snap you up, once it sees your B.A. in economics from M.I.T.). Most often, parents must think they are paying for the latter product. Great though Yeats may be, 40-some-odd thousand seems a steep price to pay for his acquaintance. The timeless questions that college provokes — like “What the hell are you going to do with a degree in English?” — must get shouted across dinner tables with increasing vehemence as college costs rise inexorably.

But the education kids are rewarded for may not be the same education their parents think they are paying for. Economists would say that a college degree is partly a “signaling” device — it shows not that its holder has learned something but rather that he is the kind of person who could learn something. Colleges sort as much as they teach. Even when they don’t increase a worker’s productivity, they help employers find the most productive workers, and a generic kind of productivity can be demonstrated as effectively in medieval-history as in accounting classes.


  1. Blue said...

    Abi, I've really appreciated your posts on "real universities" and so am curious as to your response to this article. I found it both disturbing and somewhat logically circuitous, particularly in the ideas proposed at its conclusion.

    For example: how does a college help an employer find the most productive workers? (Taking out of account the fact that most jobs, excluding retail and the like, are found through networking/connections and not through direct interaction with "college," whatever that means.) As a diploma does not include a breakdown of number of hours studied (vs., say, partied), it is impossible to tell which of a handful of cum laude graduates would in fact be "the most productive worker." And what does productivity mean in relation to what can be measured on a transcript? A person with high grades could work very slowly... would an employer find this graduate more or less productive than a student who gets B grades but works very quickly (in order to, say, hold down a part-time job)?

    Likewise, if college's purpose is to create people who are "the kind of people who could learn something" but not to create people who have actually learned something, then... well, for starters, how is this "potential to learn" measured -- and for second starters, what are students then being asked to do during their tenure in college? Not learn -- but almost learn? Show indication that learning can happen, but not bother going all the way?

    I'm interested to know if you agree or disagree with Caldwell's essay, and why.

  2. Abi said...

    Blue: The way I see it, college is different things to different people. For those who are academically inclined, it's a great place to learn new things and new ways of thinking about things. Clearly, this lot is a minority! And this is the lot that really 'learns something'.

    But there's a fairly large number of people for whom college education is essentially a way to acquire marketable credentials that they can use for moving on to their non-academic pursuits. Among these credentials are analytical skills, which presumably make them 'more productive' [which leads, for example, to a 50 % differential in average pay at 30].

    While I agree that this part of Caldwell's article is not persuasively argued, this is not a new argument. The fact that someone has finished college in four years implies that that someone possesses a desirable work ethic, is able to navigate through academic challenges, and is reasonably mature. This is the 'signaling' Caldwell talks about (I think), and there is a fair bit of truth in it.

    For a somewhat more blunt articulation of this 'college is for credentialing' view, check out this post by Richard Vedder.

  3. Blue said...

    Abi -- thanks. Does it make a difference, though, if one considers that the college degree (at least in America, and I don't know if this is true in India as well) is becoming merely a base credential at best? That is, most students seeking serious employment must continue graduate study because employers recognize that the undergrad degree alone is not enough to signify the necessary skills/discipline/productivity/whatever to perform the desired job?

    Perhaps Caldwell is right that the undergrad degree signifies "potential to learn" (particularly determined by GPA and GRE scores) -- but in that case what employers seem to really want is "evidence of learning," which is now only signified by graduate-level work.

    True or untrue in your observations?