Arnold Kling  

My Education Rant

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I fear that many of the students who pass will go on to earn Wizard-of-Oz diplomas, which signify nothing. Students will claim to be educated, but employers will know otherwise. The phenomenon of the Wizard-of-Oz diploma has discredited the college degree.

My oldest daughter discovered that her degree qualified her for secretarial positions. She soon decided to try law school instead. As her experience illustrates, although the average salary differential between college graduates and non-graduates remains high, the marginal college graduate is earning little or no premium.


Most of the essay is devoted to trying to knock down the idea that education is the answer for economic inequality. The thinking is that since college graduates on average earn a premium, if more young people went to college, they would earn higher incomes.

The reality is that sending more people to college creates more problems than it solves. My impression of George Mason is that there is a disconnect between the faculty and the admissions office. The faculty think in terms of a rigorous liberal arts education, and the admissions office takes in students who would be best served by trade schools or community colleges.

The use of trade schools is restricted by occupational licensing regulations.


We speak of the proverbial auto mechanic, but in fact the best career path for many of these students in today's economy would be in the allied health fields. Unfortunately, this career path is blocked by occupational licensing requirements, which prevent many otherwise capable students from pursuing careers in dental hygiene, physical therapy, or similar professions. If we had the equivalent credentialism at work in auto repair, you would need four years of college plus two or three years of post-graduate education just to work on a car.


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The author at Outside The Beltway | OTB in a related article titled Higher Education and Lower Standards writes:
    Arnold Kling describes a situation familiar to any who have taught college courses in the past several decades: Out of over 100 students in my class at George Mason, no more than a handful could function in any capacity in a job that required writing a... [Tracked on December 2, 2006 8:51 AM]
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    Sometimes when I'm reading, a particular sentence will jump out at me as a stand-alone bit of profundity. Here are a few that recently caught my eye:"The faculty think in terms of a rigorous liberal arts education, and the admissions... [Tracked on December 2, 2006 10:27 AM]
COMMENTS (16 to date)
Randy writes:

Agreed. I would like to see high schools and community colleges coordinate on providing a more technical education for high school age students. If the classes can't be offered at the high school, then let the high school students take technical classes at the community college for combined credit.

We're giving kids 3 months of spanish, english lit, consumer economics, drama, etc., etc., etc., but not the chance to earn a living without attending college. I think this is backwards. High school should be about learning necessary skills. Life and/or college is where the student can choose to study whatever captures their imagination.

Buzzcut writes:

Arnold, your thinking on education is as innovative and original as your thinking on healthcare. A new book: "Crisis of Abundance II: The Education Wars"?

There are so many entrenched interests here: teachers, other school employees, suburban parents, suburban homeowners, licensed trades, etc. From a public choice perspective, it is no wonder that both Republicans and Democrats advocate more or less the same policies.

In the end, education, like health care, would be better served if the government spent less money and regulated less. the issues are very similar.

ryan writes:

The entrenched interest story is why I would shy away from any proposed improvements depending on computers and the Internet. I think this is one of those times where constraints improve results rather than reducing them. If a school district or an education department has the choice between spending money on shiny new computers or boring new teachers, which will they go with? If I understand correctly, smaller class sizes are one of the rare factors that do correlate with improved education. But smaller classes require more teachers, and "more teachers" is a public choice problem: to the extent that education policy is governed by educators, there is an incentive to reduce the number of teachers and by doing so raise wages. (That is, after all, the entire point of having a union, isn't it?) Offering the option of more spending on computers makes this option way too easy.

dearieme writes:

When ranting about your students' poor written English, would it not have been better to refer to "quality of writng" rather than "writing quality"?

dearieme writes:

No: probably "quality of writing" would have been even better. Bugger.

Giovanni writes:

I agree with almost everything said. However, I'd like to hear more concrete policies to support and less general ranting. Sure, vouchers are a nice step, but even those don't work out nearly as well as they sound like they would.

And why does Arnold himself teach at such traditional schools? Why not teach at some improved voucher based alternative?

One last point: I've worked at a company where the president and owner had far worse grammar skills than everyone else at the company, including the techies and untrained teenager secretaries. He was an excellent communicator, negotiator, and manipulator, and got very rich, but his grammar was atrocious. Personally, bad grammar makes my skin crawl. But it's not a skill that is necessary for success.

spencer writes:

Actually there is a certification process for auto mechanics and those who pass it earn better salaries. Generally it takes an AA degree to pass the exam.

Auto dealerships will not hire mechanics that have not been certified.

Buzzcut writes:

>>Actually there is a certification process for auto mechanics and those who pass it earn better salaries

It is a purely voluntary certification. That is not what Arnold was talking about. He was talking about teacher certification and licensure, where the state enforces the standard.

With mechanics, anyone is free to become a machanic, but ASE certification can be earned. No one is free to be a public school teacher without a license, and to do so one must graduate from an education school.

quadrupole writes:

I really wish there was good data around the effect on earnings of college degrees by major. I strongly suspect that studies showing that college graduates earn x% more than high school graduates in aggregate over their lifetimes are actually masking the fact that certain majors (english, anthropology, etc) provide little to know earnings boost on average and certain other majors (engineering, science, etc) provide much larger income boosts than are reflected in the aggregate numbers.

Just anecdotally, the folks I knew who got degrees in the liberal arts like english who did not go on to law school generally started in the mid $20k range out of school and haven't seen their pay increase much in the last 5-7 years. The folks I knew who got degrees in science and engineering tended to start in the $60k range and have seen their earnings roughly double in the first 5-7 years out of school. I REALLY wish I had some good (non-anecdotal) data on this. I suspect it would show that MANY, MANY degrees are not worthwhile as investments.

Matt C writes:

Nice article.

The value of a degree to employers keeps falling. The financial costs of a college degree keep climbing. Online alternatives to the classroom will keep spreading and getting cheaper.

Maybe my hopes are running away with me, but I think we're in for a major upset to the educational system over the next couple of decades.

Ron writes:

If the job market were fairly static, our education model would work. Take 18 years to line up against a target and then "blam" out comes a graduate prepared for the job market. But the target moves too much and the boundary between universities and organizations needs to blur, allowing universities to focus more on issues of productivity and businesses to focus more on becoming learning organizations. Students need more real world feedback when they can still make corrections to what they are learning and how they are applying themselves.

blink writes:

I think that a reputable college degree will continue to be valued. As graduates see less return on their investment in education, perhaps, too, colleges will have an incentive to tighten academic standards. Of course, the wild-card is public financing. If we move too far in the direction of our K-12 system, we may find the worst of both worlds: negligible skill enhancement and an unreliable signal.

I believe your theory predicts an increasing “superstar” effect for graduates from elite colleges in comparison to, say, state schools. If so, it should be amenable to testing.

scott clark writes:

You mentioned that you don't fail the students whose papers fail to correctly use the english language to communicate. I think you should fail them. I graduated with an econ degree from Mason in 2002. I remember being in my 300 level english class, which was about writing, and we would peer review our neighbors papers. There were a few non-native english speakers in that class trying to write in english. Their papers were terrible, just words on a page in a vain attempt to express an idea. When I saw that the teacher would not fail those papers, I knew that I would never have to put forth any effort in any of the work required. No more need to show up to class, which meant I could spend more time studying econ, which I love, and more time rowing (Support Mason Crew). You are contributing to the problem of Wizard of Oz degrees when you pass these students. If these students are either not prepared or not interested in being in academia, do them a favor and fail them out. I was in a fraternity at college and we all knew very soon who did not belong in college, who would have been better off if they just started in on a career. My best friend and pledge brother, we were freshman together, is the best guy you ever want to know, but he had nothing to offer college, and college had nothing to offer him, besides the girls, booze, and parties, I mean. He failed out freshman year and was able to get on with his life. If you pass your students for producing unacceptable work, don't be surprised when you get more of the same.

You should know better.

Tim Worstall writes:

One piece of work I've been doing has meant reading through all of the training requirements for different jobs at the BLS site. 6 years college to be an occupational therapist? It's full of things like that. Milton was right, the AMA (and its siblings) have way too much power.

John B. Chilton writes:

Newmark's Door to an interesting argument about how a court decision could have had the unintended consequence of inflating the perceived need for a college degree. I summarize some of Gallaway's essay here.

Nathan writes:

My mother teaches Business Communications and english composition at a good California State university.

She says the exact same thing about communications and the quality of students that she teaches.

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