Arnold Kling  

Another Look at Higher Education at the Margin

Gokhale on Social Security... The Case Against Big Banks...

Mark Thoma piqued my interest in a new paper by Jenny E. Brand and Yu Xie.

For some individuals from socially advantaged backgrounds, college is a culturally expected outcome. For this group, college is less exclusively and intentionally linked to economic gain than it is for people in less advantaged groups, for whom a college education is a novelty that may well demand economic justification...individuals who are least likely to obtain a college education benefit most from college.

What follows is a statistical maze. I prefer a narrative that starts with the simplest way to characterize the data and then proceeds to introduce complications gradually as needed.

If I am reading their table 6 correctly, it suggests that majors in science, math, and engineering tend to come from the relatively advantaged groups, majors in education and business tend to come from relatively disadvantaged groups, and majors in social science and humanities tend to come from groups in between. I tend to think of majors in science, math, and engineering as having obtained skills, majors in education have obtained credentials, and majors in business, social science, and humanities as having obtained neither. That is a gross over-generalization, of course.

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COMMENTS (18 to date)
aretae writes:

I have a hard time disagreeing with your characterization (skills, credentials, neither), with the one caveat that both "Bachelors of" and MBAs are an awful lot like credentials, even if there's not yet a legal requirement.

I usually suggest that social scientists and humanities folks have primarily gained prisms through which to view the world, but the dollar value of that is questionable.

Jack writes:

I would suggest that business, social sciences, and humanities degrees simply act as signalling. As Bryan Caplan blogged a while back, this separates the smart-and-motivated from the smart-but-lazy crowd. (Smart may be too generous a qualifier, but anyway...) Of course, if those degrees are merely signalling, this is a very expensive, indeed wasteful activity, socially.

Noah Yetter writes:

...majors in business, social science, and humanities as having obtained neither.

Economics included? ;)

I have a degree in economics myself and to be fair, I don't think I really did gain skills or credentials as such, but rather a way of thinking.

Jeff writes:

I'm not quite sure I understand tossing business majors under the "neither" category.

If we accept this is true, we're left with, for example, the conclusion that here in Baltimore, T. Rowe Price hires scores of unskilled, uncredentialed finance and accounting graduates from area colleges every year because...well, why, exactly?

david writes:

Kling's caught an acute case of physics envy!

Don't worry, it happens to economists every now and then...

Ano writes:

A few questions your post begs (from my perspective):
- Why does the private labor market pay people with "neither" degrees so much more than people without?
- If "neither" degrees don't improve someone's productivity, why aren't companies recruiting high school seniors likely to otherwise "waste" their money on a history or english degree? They could offer jobs to someone with an acceptance letter to a decent school (pre-screening without the wasted time at a University!).
- Is it possible that you are taking ideas that are under-appreciated (certain public and quasi-public employers over-pay for credentials; some students would be better off getting work experience than a "neither" degree) and significantly over-appreciating them? You're basically saying that people who major in the social sciences and humanities have mostly wasted their time and money.

fundamentalist writes:

In defense of the business degree, the original intent of the degree was to turn business managers into conductors instead of french horn players. Management was seen as a skill set, much like that of a conductor of an orchestra, that included some knowledge of all business functions with the added skill of making them all harmonize and the business succeed.

Many companies have trouble because their managers came up through marketing, accounting or engineering and the managers know nothing about the other functions and care less. True business majors should be able to see the big picture and how all the functions must work together. If there is anything that managers should show great skill at, it's strategic planning.

I think the intent of the business degree was to add skills, especially strategic planning, but I'm not sure that has worked out too well. Most BA grads tend to fixate on finance.

Mercer writes:

A four year degree is a credential. This credential has some value to employers because many jobs require a degree but don't care what the major is.

kebko writes:

It seems strange that they claim the science, math & engineering fields are populated with advantaged populations, since at many schools they are mostly populated with immigrants & their children.

SydB writes:

The irony is that your gross overgeneralizations and love of narratives is exactly the approach used in in the courses with "studies" appended to the name.

Perhaps we should call your blog "econostudies" instead of "econlog?" :-)

Colin K writes:

Jeff: "T. Rowe Price hires scores of unskilled, uncredentialed finance and accounting graduates from area colleges every year because...well, why, exactly?"

Signaling. Any 20-year-old who willingly majors in accounting has proven that he is willing to engage in long hours of tedious, socially-unrewarding work in return for future compensation.

I was an econ major at a good school. I enjoyed the major, but on a day to day basis, I learned more of professional value from (1) the extracurricular activities I participated in, and (2) the two night-school classes in comp sci that I took a year after I got my degree. The primary value of the degree was the signaling associated with the school I went to.

Loof writes:

In recognizing a “gross generalization”, Arnold, I hope you’ve also move off the claim in Friday’s Rant: “the preparation that they [teachers] receive from taking education classes has little or no impact on their classroom effectiveness.”

Years ago the ‘new rich’ in Laos consulted me about developing a high standard private school system in their country. They didn’t want to send their children to schools in Thailand anymore. This project didn’t get beyond planning and research, but a lot was learned and was able to recommend a few things for them to proceed.

Regarding teacher training: I recommended that people interviewed as potential teachers have a love of learning as they tend to become autodidactic with the ability to learn any subject to impart a basic education in any field. To develop good standards, the recommendation was too focus the training of teachers on how to know if what is taught is valid (relevant and reliable). Experts in a field can be poor teachers, especially if the only teaching skill they’ve got is lecturing.

I attended a conference on lifelong learning looking for a curriculum the Laos people could adopt. While the Japanese are great book learners and good test takers, once they got their professional credential they closed their books and tended to stop learning anything new. At the other end of the scale were the Canadians who did very well at lifelong learning. Further investigation found they were at or near the top in schooling too. The Alberta curriculum was recommended since they were topnotch in internationally testing of literacy, math, and science skills.

In a compete contrast to Canada, why does America do so poorly (in learning generally and as life long learners it seems)? Relative to the rest of the developed world, the USA is 15th in literacy; 24th in mathematics; 21st in science.

I believe it has a lot to do with a negative attitude towards public education and disrespect for teachers in general – unique to America, I believe. The educational system fails completely when they start firing all teachers in a high school. They’re scapegoats.

BZ writes:

AK, and others - Got my MS & BS in Computer Science ten years ago, and can tell you that I was conciously motivated by credentials / signalling the whole time. The phrase I always used was "I want my piece of paper so I can get paid to write programs!". My MS degree, in addition to being fun as hell, was my "fancy piece of paper".

Kebko - I concur-- immigrants, especially from China and India, were extremely common in my CS department. Could it be that they were advantaged for their country of origin?

Loof - Are attitudes bad because our public education stinks, or does it stink because our attitudes are bad? Jaimi Escalante makes me suspect the former.

Peter writes:

I still all see this as the standard self licking ice cream cone problem and have yet to see the fundamental question answered of:

On the margins (or masses as a better way to think of it) are you better getting a bachelors, an associates, or journeyman. I think we all agree any education is better than no education and that folk with graduate or doctoral degree's are better off (on average) that those without yet that is missing the vast unwashed middle. What I would love to see is a comparison of (for example):

2 year technical degree v. 4 year social science degree v. tradesman v. union unskilled

i.e. radiological tech v. woman studies major v. master plumber v. toll booth worker on the NJ turnpike

Would love to see initial wage and wages expected over lifetime of worker including period of unemployment, benefits, retirement, hours worked, et al.

What I see here, as with most studies, unskilled v. skilled where they are defined as high school dropout v. four year degree which isn't all that helpful when trying to make educational decisions for our children.

Troy Camplin writes:

Education majors have attained nothing. They would be more qualified to teach if they never went to college to unlearn all the good sense they once had and learn incorrect ways to teach. If I could be made "College Czar," I would abolish education as a major and as a graduate degree. The latter only perpetuate stupidities as grad students have to come up with "new" ways to teach to justify their program of study, but which only work to undermine the things we know to work.

Now, considering economics is a social science, are you saying that you have neither skills nor credentials?

MernaMoose writes:


Kling's caught an acute case of physics envy!

So should we let him in on the secret? That if he wants a paying job, he'd be much better off if he envied most any engineering major rather than physics?

Peter, good questions.

MernaMoose writes:


why does America do so poorly (in learning generally and as life long learners it seems)? Relative to the rest of the developed world

Serious question: are these comparisons that everybody seems to like throwing around, really valid? As in -- the US educational system, despite its many flaws, largely does leave the doors open for anyone with the ambition and intelligence, to climb as far up the ladder as they want. I'm fairly certain that isn't the case in western Europe and countries that model thereafter, though not sure about Canada and Japan.

I consider myself a case in point. Grew up in red neck country where a high school diploma was viewed more a necessary evil than anything. A few people might get an associates at a technical college but that was it. I was a self-declared mathematical idiot in high school and worked four years before thinking about college.

Then I got into working as a heating and air conditioning technician. Which got me into physics. Which got me interested in math. Which got me into college, initially for a 2 year technician degree but then I liked college. By the time I quit, I had a PhD in engineering in spite of having about the worst high school prep you could imagine (took only as much math and science as they forced me to take to get a high school diploma).

I'm clear on the fact that I'm a statistical aberration. But I'm also sure I'm not the only one here in the US, because I've met plenty of others like me. People who started life out as technicians have made some of the best engineers I've ever met.

I don't believe my story would have been possible in a western European country because they have you pegged in the school system, I believe by junior high and definitely by high school. So to what extent does the US compare poorly, because we let anybody in the front doors of the educational system? Even if most of them don't get far before walking back out?

I've taken my share of "intelligence" (i.e. entrance) exams. But I've yet to see an exam that measures motivation, other than Real Life. I wonder how many motivated people the western European school system walls out. Even if people like me are exceptions to the rule, is the relatively closed European model really better than the American model?

I say, our educational system should be left open so that people like me, can do what I did. If we "compare" poorly to college prep track students in other countries, so be it.

btw, I've also read that western Europe has another problem -- too many people with college degrees, and not enough people to do things like build buildings etc.

MernaMoose writes:


If you really want to know which educations are worth what at the margins, you'd need to look at a free market education system, yes?

I'm afraid the data you really need doesn't exist. Though it's interesting to try and understand it as best we can, from where we're standing.

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