Bryan Caplan  

A Puzzle for Human Capital Extremists Revisited

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A while back I posed the following puzzle to those who dismiss the signaling model of education:
Why do students rejoice whenever a teacher cancels class?

From a human capital standpoint, students' attitude is baffling.  They've paid good money to acquire additional skills.   Employers will judge them by the skills their teachers impart.  But when the students' agent, their teacher, unilaterally decides to teach them less without the slightest prospect of a refund, the students cheer.  How bizarre.  Would a contractor jump for joy when his roofers tell him they're taking short cuts on the shingles in order to go drinking?
In my original response I considered myopia as an explanation, but found it unconvincing:
A behavioral economist could say that the students are myopic; they're overly focused on short-run fun rather than long-run success.  But much of the appeal of human capital extremism is that it's a fully rational story of educational choice.  Once you admit that students are myopic, who knows what else you'll have to admit?
I could have said the same about the subtly different "hyperbolic discounting" story.  Only today, though, did a far stronger response to the myopia and hyperbolic discounting explanations dawn upon me.*  Namely: If students' problem were myopia or hyperbolic discounting, they wouldn't wait for their professors to cancel class!  They'd simply stop attending, enjoy short-run pleasure, and bemoan the long-run consequences. 

If you're a human capital extremist, you can't start talking about the bad effects of  cutting classes on a student's relative class performance.  Either you're learning skills or you aren't; where you stand in the grading curve should have no effect on how employers treat you down the line.  Once you give the signaling model some credence, of course, the puzzle vanishes in a flash:
The signaling model of education has an even easier story: Students want not knowledge, but certification.  Future employers only see your grade and diploma - and the less a professor teaches, the less students have to learn to get the grade and diploma they want.
Of course, the human capital extremist could retreat to an even more ad hoc position.  He could appeal to conformism, or deference to authority.  He could even say that students cheer whenever a teacher cancels class because students falsely believe in the signaling model!  But what's the point?  If you continue to dismiss the signaling model after two decades in school, I say you're simply being contrary.
* My arguments works best for college students; compulsory attendance laws for K-12 education muddy the waters.

COMMENTS (13 to date)
Matt Nolan writes:

Couldn't you save the hyperbolic discounting model quite easily in this case?

Students cheer about a missed class because they value "now" relatively heavy compared to all future periods.

However, students still invest in their human capital in this model - because they use enrolling to a university to do a course as a commitment device to ensure they reach a minimum level of proficiency, and thereby the optimal amount of human capital accumulation.

This could also explain why people enroll in courses that appear to be easy to "self-teach" - as being enrolled in the course provides a commitment device.

omer writes:

Would the same students behave the same way if a private tutor they hired (to help them before the final exam) did the same (cancels the session or finishes early)?

Robinson writes:
Namely: If students' problem were myopia or hyperbolic discounting, they wouldn't wait for their professors to cancel class! They'd simply stop attending, enjoy short-run pleasure, and bemoan the long-run consequences.

That is very common behavior in college.

Also, consider that students procrastinate on studying for tests or working on term projects, and the farther away the test is the less they'll care about it (and they'll often regret it later). The signaling model could explain this only in terms of hyperbolic discounting or something similar. So if the signaling model of education is allowed to incorporate irrationality, why isn't the human capital model? If students irrationally discount the importance of a test a few weeks away, why is it hard to believe they'd discount the importance of their job performance many years away?

(By the way, I believe wholeheartedly in the signaling model of education, I just find this particular argument unconvincing).

Max M writes:

Alternate hypothesis:

Perhaps students are interested in signaling to themselves that they are intelligent, educated, on the path to success, and all the rest. So they attend class, write papers, and work hard to get good grades and tell themselves the aforementioned story.

However when class is canceled for reasons beyond their control, they have access to a different story and even more palatable story (as it involves more fun and less effort). Namely, that they would've wanted to attend class that day, but were denied the opportunity. Thus, they are not people who "skip class", as "those people are losers", but they're people who "couldn't" attend class. Their identity crisis and cognitive dissonance are resolved.

And as for signaling, maybe they rejoice to their friends about the cancellation as a way to signal to their friends that they are not at all concerned about "being educated", because - after all, cool kids aren't supposed to care about attending class.

Doug writes:

So a modest proposal to break the education cartel.

Allow any student to take the exams for any publicly funded university course. Allow them to do it for only a small fee representing the cost of test administration and grading, i.e. not general tuition. Also grade the exams blindly.

A student can earn credit and a grade at that university for that course by sitting for and passing the exam. If there's a non-exam component to the grade, assign the student his grade by taking his percentile performance on the course grade and giving him the grade that corresponds to the percentile.

Any student that has credit for the required graduating courses for that degree, whether obtained by actually taking the course or blind exam, must be conferred a degree by that institution. Enforce laws preventing universities from disclosing whether said student was a full-time student or just an exam taker.

Therefore Harvard can let whomever it wants in for its student body based on whatever criteria it wants. It can charge whatever it wants and graduate students conferring them Harvard degrees.

However anyone can shadow a Harvard curriculum by independently studying for (or with the help of specialized test prep not affiliated with Harvard) and testing into a Harvard degree. Said diploma is functionally indifferent from a full-fledged Harvard diploma.

Mark writes:

How about because teaching sucks so badly throughout the academic lives of most students that they see little value in attending classes by the time they get to college. And it sucks even then.

Consider the typical economics course: abstract theories and models that are taught without context and with no perceivable relevance to their lives.

In English and literature, think of trying to learn a classic like Dante's _Divine Comedy_. without proper context and historical background. The story is largely meaningless and tedious to read.

I find that when I can teach a course with some context, create a dialog with the students rather than talk at them, and can connect their future with the students' present, the majority are very interested and engaged in the discussion.

Ybell writes:

Your case becomes slightly stronger when we consider the cases in which students do not rejoice. While rare, these are still in existence, mostly in clinical courses -- those provided by professionals to would-be professionals.
To give a concrete example: many MBA students will lament the cancellation of a lecture by a guy "who made it" in a course titled: "How to raise venture capital in 20 days". (think also on mediation classes, entrepreneurship classes, negotiation workshop, etc).

Also, students can easily and freely audit classes in their institution. The fact that they hardly ever audit is suggestive.

Robinson writes:

Doug: as great as it would be to break the education cartel, that would be an incredibly burdensome and intrusive regulation.

(Also, if the plan is for publicly funded universities, why do you include Harvard?).

Paul Crowley writes:

It doesn't seem controversial that a lot of students go to University solely in order to receive certification, and the less that they personally need to learn to receive this certification the happier they are (so long as they don't undermine the credibility of the certificate). But this doesn't help establish what to me the most interesting assertion of the signalling theory: that employers don't care about this learning either, only the demonstration that the student is capable of it; that employers would seek those with degrees even if the entire memory of the course were wiped from student's heads on graduation.

Cameron Mulder writes:

A few years back I did an intensive 10 credit summer calculus course. It was basically 3 hours of class a day for 10 weeks.

Due to it being summer there were a few odd days where the campus was closed and so class was cancelled. These days were not outlined well in the course catalog and were even a surprise to the instructor. The students were pissed.

More than a few pointed out that they had paid for those hours and expected them. The instructor, to his credit, offered to stay after class and help people to make up for the loss of classroom time.

This was a unique set of students, ones who made the choice to spend most of their summer learning calculus, but i have seen this change of attitude more and more on campus. Honestly not sure what to make of it but I do think people are starting to look more deeply at how they develop their skills vs just getting a diploma.

botogol writes:

@doug -- it's here: the university of london international programme is pretty much what you envisage.

students can enrol, study on their own, or pay any 3rd party establishment they like to coach them (some establishments are acredited, but they don't have be, and many aren't) and then take the exam.

jc writes:

Analogy: I wish to lose weight, but I do not enjoy the process of losing weight (foregoing delicious food while making myself exercise). If you give me an excuse to take a day off (allowing me to eat what I want while foregoing exercise), I will celebrate.

Give one or two classes off, and students sometimes celebrate. Would they celebrate if you cancelled all classes? (Assume they still get credit for taking it. My guess: some would, but others would not and would be angry at you.)

Robinson writes:

One other response- I've often heard students complain about a class being "too easy." I've heard this in high school, college, and graduate school- it's rarer than complaining that a class is too hard, but not much.

Under the signaling model, why would students ever complain about this?

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