Bryan Caplan  

Educational Counter-Signaling Bleg

From the weekend's op-ed pages... Model Forecasting Performance...
How successful does someone have to be before he starts bragging, "I never finished college" or "I never went to college?"  Gates and Zuckerberg are clearly there.  How much lower down the ladder of success must you go before such counter-signaling fades away?

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COMMENTS (25 to date)
mb writes:

You can go very far down, but my experience is there is a huge gap. Many very successful small business people will brag about that. Plumbers will brag - if they make decent hourly wage. As will mechanics. If you do comparatively well compared to college educated people - most will brag. I think you hit a big hole in the upper middle class that work in offices - there is a glass ceiling for those without a degree.

ThomasL writes:


I know several successful small business owners that didn't go (or didn't graduate from) college.

Two that come immediately to mind--one owns a couple of high-end glasses stores and the other owns a salon.

As you mention, there are a lot of self-employed tradesmen that do well without a degree. I know a handful.

I wanted to mention the others though, because it is not just plumbers, mechanics, A/C repairmen, etc. that skip college and start successful businesses.

You are probably right about management positions in big firms though. There are both status and hiring rule restrictions that make it more difficult than in smaller organizations.

ThomasL writes:


I didn't go to college.

Doug writes:

In finance you have to get very high before this works. I-bank managing directors and hedge fund portfolio managers who didn't go to Ivy class schools are frequently sensitive about the issue.

As for Gates and Zuckerberg, careful what you're saying there. They still went to Harvard, and hence most of the signaling is there, after all they were accepted. Virtually all accepted students at Harvard finish, so dropping out isn't as stigmatized as dropping out of State U.

Bryan Caplan writes:


"Virtually all accepted students at Harvard finish, so dropping out isn't as stigmatized as dropping out of State U." I'd think that dropping out would be *more* stigmatized when almost no one does it. Much like getting tenure revoked is more stigmatized than merely being fired.

ThomasL writes:

FWIW, I am probably a little hesitant to mention not going, rather than inclined to brag about it.

It depends a lot on company. When I meet other people that work for (or own) small businesses that also didn't go, other people in the same field that didn't go, etc., I feel inclined to mention it. Kindred spirits.

Likewise, when I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Kling a couple of years ago, and we talked for a bit about education, I did not feel at all uncomfortable to mention it in the context of the conversation.

That said, I have a difficult time imaging going out to dinner with customers and dropping how I didn't go to Harvard (or in my line of work, Stanford) the way others drop that they did.

Becky Hargrove writes:

Anyone who knows how to repair (or perhaps build) what others don't often work on: such as high end musical instruments.

Mike writes:

So much of what I use in my work I originally was exposed to in school. Having said that, it was not necessary that I learned these concepts in school. I would have been better served by an appropriate mentoring/apprenticeship program.

I have been a Marine Corps officer, a manufacturing supervisor, a banker, a salesman, a small business owner, the dean of a foreign business school, etc.

The most important things I learned in school are discounted cash flow concepts and marginal cost/revenue concepts. I might also throw in cost/managerial accounting. Nothing else has mattered other than experience. School wasn't really necessary to learn these concepts. It just happens to be where I learned them.

But, and here it is a big but, I would have never landed any of those jobs without the degrees I possess.

I will also say this: the seemingingly happiest people I've ever met were when I was a banker and dealing with small business owners that were very successful. Most of them never went to college. Many of these guys were quite proud of not having gone to college.

So I think its a bifurcated world. Certain jobs require the credential, others don't. Happiness is not dependent on the good credential.

Funny thing: since this was Texas, all the small business men without college degrees had a favorite college football team.

Lee Kelly writes:

People often ask me what I studied in college, because they notice the books I read and subjects I like to talk about.

Whether they are more or less impressed because I didn't go to college usually depends on how much they agree with me. For some, it's evidence that I must be especially curious and intelligent, while for others, it's evidence that I'm just an enthusiastic idiot. One man's modus ponens is another man's modus tollens, as someone once said.

If I volunteer the information, it's normally to caution people that the pattern of my experiences and knowledge is irregular, and because I get nervous when people start treating me like an authority on something.

The question is, then, if I were to become successful in some way, then at what point would I switch from being mildly embarrassed about my lack of schooling to using it to counter-signal? probably not much, but as an Englishman I would still have to at least pretend to be embarrassed about it all.

It must also be stressed that the 'I never went to college' line is also a way to indirectly insult snobbish elites, and that must be very satisfying, especially if the speaker was once treated dismissively or derivisively for being a social inferior. The signalling, in that case, might not be about intelligence, drive, or talent, but rather about social allegiance.

Floccina writes:

$150,000/year or $1,000,000 in assets.

David P writes:

I think though for them the signal isn't so much that they dropped out but that they were accepted to a top tier college and then so successful that the signal was no longer helpful.

Brian Clendinen writes:

So what is the economic term when you have a few college degrees but you are always preaching how pointless they were especially a MBA because they are a “dime a dozen” ? Anti-singling, anti-counter -signaling, protest-singling?

It might be partly because I got an MBA from the same public university I received my business undergrad degrees from and the MBA was a dumb down version of an undergrad general business degree.

Pax Dickinson writes:

In software development, most jobs require a bachelors in compsci or "equivalent experience".

I've found that as soon as you have that experience you can freely brag about never finishing college. It's never held me back that I dropped out my first year.

In fact, knowing what I know now, I would have dropped out of high school at 16, got a GED and started working as a freelance developer 3-4 years sooner than I did. School never did much for me, I'm too impatient to go at the pace of a class, I'd rather just take a book home and teach myself.

Chris writes:

The recently retired CEO from my firm (Fortune 500) did not complete college. He did his very best to never mention it - if it was brought up he would quickly change the subject.

Bob Knaus writes:

My income varies from year to year, but it's safe to say that my AGI on my form 1040 has not exceeded $20K since I decided to stop working full time in 2003. Prior to that it was in the $80K-$90K range.

I'm a high school dropout. I live on a sailboat in the Bahamas. Right now I'm working on a management consulting contract which may or may not save a mid-size state government in excess of $20 million a year.

Does that answer any of your questions?

blink writes:

I think this is a false comparison. Obviously Gates and company can forswear college credentials *now* because they can rely on an even more powerful signal, namely their immense accomplishments. However, the question should be whether they could have effectively counter-signaled out of high school. Moreover, to the extent that one chooses entrepreneurship as Gates and Zuckerberg did, counter-signaling is irrelevant since they have no need to signal to themselves.

It is also telling that both of your leading examples could rely on the very strong intelligence signal of having been accepted by Harvard.

nicholas weininger writes:

When I got (long story) a tour of the NYSE trading floor about 15 years ago the floor traders bragged about not having gone to college. They wanted to drive home the point that their job depended more on toughness and cunning than on book learning, and they were proud of having found a legal, respected way to translate that toughness and cunning into a white-collar, upper-middle-class living.

PrometheeFeu writes:

I don't think Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are engaging in counter-signaling. What could they possibly be signaling for?


Both Zuckerberg and Gates depended heavily on venture capital to succeed and VCs like signals a lot. Common advice is that if you or a key team member went to Harvard, MIT, Stanford etc, it belongs on the first slide of your deck. You think employers face information asymmetries, that's nothing compared to a VC.

Ryan Vann writes:

What's with the signaling meme anyway? I envision a bunch of individuals throwing "steal second" signs at one another, or having signal lights on their foreheads.

Roger Sweeny writes:

@Bryan Caplan

"Virtually all accepted students at Harvard finish, so dropping out isn't as stigmatized as dropping out of State U." I'd think that dropping out would be *more* stigmatized when almost no one does it. Much like getting tenure revoked is more stigmatized than merely being fired.

But at Harvard, you drop out because you want to, not because you have to (or at least, you can credibly assert that). So if you succeed afterward, it is status-enhancing. It says, "I was too good for Harvard." Dropping out of State U is more likely to signal, "I wasn't good enough for State U."

Bernie writes:

I think that anytime you are working alongside people with a degree and you are making the same or more than they are is the correct time to brag.

It works for me anyway. It never gets old asking them to justify what they spent (time and money) in school to end up working with someone who barely finished HS.

I started rubbing it in when I was making around 80K, but the salary isn't as important as how many of your co-workers have degrees.

Seth writes:

Seems like that would depend on who they are comparing themselves to.

As long as you can find a good comparison (and that's usually not a problem) there's no lower limit.

infopractical writes:

How about simply "when you're happy with the decision"?

I sometimes tell people I didn't graduate college when there are people in the conversation who make claims about college being necessary for success [in any particular context]. The point is not to brag (there are things that feed my ego, but whether I graduated or not doesn't factor in much), but rather to provide a counterexample to block the telegraphing of the message that you'll fail in life without college.

Things I can brag about: holding some choice jobs on Wall Street, running my own trading operation, writing two books, publishing several thousand pages of math curriculum, coding in around a dozen languages (including AI lately), and building several companies. Graduating college was necessary for none of these things, nor did I learn much of anything in college that helped.

I did however learn that I attended the wrong university, and that other universities would have fit my needs better. It's unclear whether I'd be happier or better off one way or the other.

Les Cargill writes:

Gate and Zuckerberg are examples of the "wunderkind myth." It's basically a PR trope. Technology isn't about machinery...

Nice work if you can get it...

Niklas Blanchard writes:

David Friedman advertises his lack of formal training...

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