Bryan Caplan  

Bet for Brooks: No Education Tsunami Is Coming

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Another Reason to Distrust Non... Online Education: The Best-Cas...
David Brooks joins the list of people who think that higher education is going the way of the daily newspaper:
What happened to the newspaper and magazine business is about to happen to higher education: a rescrambling around the Web.
I wish he was right.  But I'll bet against it.  As I've repeatedly argued, education is largely signaling.  Part of what you're signaling is conscientiousness and conformity.  An unfortunate implication is that the first students to sign up for online alternatives will be correctly stigmatized by employers as lazy rebels. (more here)

Am I wrong?  I'm happy to offer Brooks the same terms my co-blogger David Henderson accepted last year:
I propose that we use the official numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics' Table 212.  2009 is the latest available year of data.  29.6% of 18-24 year-olds were enrolled in 4-year institutions.  I bet that in 2019, that percent will be no more than 10% lower.  Rounding in your favor, I win if the number is 26.7% or more.  If the number is lower, you win.  If the data series is discontinued, the bet is canceled.  Stakes: $100 at even odds.
As always, I'm happy to tinker with the terms.


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COMMENTS (11 to date)
DK writes:

Stakes: $100 at even odds.

That's a joke, right? $100 seven years into the future? To make it even remotely serious, it needs to be raised at least two orders (should be peanuts for both you and Brooks). I'd be happy to offer the same bet for $10,000. Pundits making predictions should be required to put real money where their mouths are.

Becky Hargrove writes:

I think that lots of changes are coming in education, but it is not easy to characterize them because they will likely happen in a larger context that also includes work and other social participation. We already learn differently on the Internet than we ever did in the classroom, but it could take a while for anyone to really connect the dots as to what that means.

I think you're wrong, but in a different way. I think in 2019 the percentage of enrolled 18-24 year olds will be similar to what it is today, but the percentage of enrolled students taking supplementary classes online will be exponentially increasing.

Students will go to college to signal conformity and take extra classes to signal ability.

Roger Magyar writes:

Four years in college is not just an education. It is an experience. Where else can children sample adulthood in an environment that prepares them to file 1040s? Where else can curious underage people gain familiarity with beer and the attitude adjustment it provides? Where else can sensitive men and women in the prime age for interpersonal discovery share moments of ecstasy that become a foundation for future healthy relationships? Where else can receptive individuals digesting a week's intellectual ferment join 50,000 others in cheering a quarterback while anticipating the attitude adjustment and interpersonal discovery that follows the game? College is more than a syllabus; it's an adventure. You won't get that online.

chipotle writes:

Professor Caplan,

Would you take let others get in that bet?

Bryan Caplan writes:

DK: You should see how hard it is to get anyone to take even a $1 bet. People hate betting because of the unambiguity. The reality is that it's primarily a reputational bet; the money's just window dressing.

chipotle: I'll bet other well-known people with a public position on the issue. Otherwise it's too easy for people to play "heads I win, tails I disappear." Nothing personal, of course!

Duncan Earley writes:

I agree with DK. You bet of $100 over seven years shows you aren't really sure of yourself. It should be $1000 at least and probably closer to $10000 at even odds.

If someone wont take you on at those amounts then you are probably right yeah? That's the point of betting markets isnt it? Put your money where your mouth (or reputation) is.

Joe Cushing writes:

They way it will work is that your degree won't say that it comes from online university. It will be from a brick and mortar one and the employer will only know the difference when it starts asking. By the time it does, it will be too late. Also, many people who attend brick and mortar classes will also attend online classes. One class in my Master's degree was online. As of now, online classes are more work much of the time because they don't all have recorded lectures. Lectures are easy passive learning.

Seth writes:

"Part of what you're signaling is conscientiousness and conformity."

I think conformity here is typically meant that you conform to meeting the requirements set by the university and professors to complete the coursework, earn the grades and earn the degree.

Another meaning is that you jumped through the same hoops as the hiring manager. I see this type of conformity all the way up the corporate ladder. Often, you are not evaluated based on your actual performance, but on whether you have similar things in your career path as the hiring manager. Did put your time in for an impossible boss? Did you slave away into the wee hours of the morning? Did you lead 10 people or more? I often hear and hear others report that that they are told by hiring managers, "that's how I got here, so you must too if you want to get to my level." Maybe that's called same path or credential bias?

If a few 'lazy rebels' make it into hiring manager positions, I expect this to aid the transition for more acceptance of this path.

Michael Bishop writes:

What if a lot of four-year institutions are partially or exclusively online. Will NCES even have that data?

A=A writes:

I have a feeling Caplan will win the bet (I doubt enrollment will decline 10% in a decade, due to stigmas people may have currently, but 2 decades, maybe). But, I suspect he is - rightly - worried about his own long-term career prospects in proving his worth as a well-paid, tenured professor in a subject of already-dubious value.

There's no reason an entire Econ. undergrad education can't be delivered very cheaply online; long, dull texts, as well as undergrads' 2D charts and even (as the Coursera machine learning course shows) econometrics data and stats can all be delivered via the web -- and all with the quality and authority that comes from the best-in-show profs inhabiting Stanford, Princeton, Berkeley, etc. (all are Coursera content providers), rather than the Podunk U. schools most of mere mortals end-up attending. Albeit, that quality does come without the personal attention and support that $5k-$50k/year buys the student... But ultimately, I suspect the power of the Internet to deliver nearly infinite 1:many ratio sizes w.r.t. content providers to content consumers, will win, and higher ed will be exposed as the expensive, social-assortment process and employment guild for the industry-averse that Caplan depicts.

Caplan needn't worry though: maybe the Koch brothers will hire him to shill for them... And if that doesn't work out, then I'm sure Caplan can trivially retrain into a new skillset and pursue a new career, right? (That PhD was only a few months work, right? Trivial, clearly.) At least, that's what he'd do if he followed the free-market lectures he and other "creative destruction" types have given for the last quarter millennia. (Mind you, I'm still a libertarian capitalist - I just disagree with the over-simplification with which economists assign the process of skill-acquisition. )

The Internet is just the spinning-Jenny of our era!

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