David R. Henderson  

Rejoicing Over Class Cutting

College and Class Identity... Toga! Toga!...

Bryan Caplan poses again the puzzle about students, human capital, and signaling. I won't repeat it because he says it so well. One of his commenters, Cameron Mulder, has an interesting piece of evidence against the idea that students rejoice when professors cancel class.

I have another piece of evidence. I taught a 40-hour Microeconomics course in Prague in the fall of 1999, under the auspices of the Rochester Institute of Technology. Students who graduated would get an MBA from RIT. The classes were from 8:00 a.m. to noon every weekday for 2 weeks. The students during those 2 weeks took only my class and spent each afternoon and evening working on problem sets and/or doing the readings for the next day.

At the end of Friday of the first week, I started feeling a bad cold coming on. So I cancelled my plans to see the countryside of the Czech Republic that weekend and holed up in my hotel room trying to get better. By Monday I was better but not great. At the end of the 4-hour class on Monday, I was dragging. I told the students why. On Tuesday morning, a number of the students came to class with various home remedies for my condition, ranging from a Vicks Vapor-like substance, but way stronger, to rub on my chest and under my nose, to one guy's sure-fire alcohol cure. They made it clear that although they liked me and were looking out for me, it was even more important to them that I show up each day so that they didn't get "cheated" out of their education they had paid for.

Oh, yes; they had paid for it. As I recall, the tuition was approximately $6,000 to $10,000, depending on what country they came from. It was price discrimination: there were no scholarships. The Czech residents paid towards the top end of the scale and they were overwhelmingly the ones who came with the home remedies. (I don't want to make too much of this because the other ones, coming from other countries, might not have had their pet home remedies available.) That number was a large % of annual salaries in the Czech Republic.

So here's my thought. When people are paying their own way, they want the education they're paying for. I don't know how general this is. Bryan could still be right. But it's one interesting piece of counter-evidence.

Certainly, that fits my own case. I started college at age 16 and my father, knowing my ability to manage money, gave me all the money he had saved for my college. It was enough to pay for about 1.3 years of a 3-year college degree. I financed the rest with some scholarships and some savings and mainly money I earned. If a professor didn't show up, I was upset. There was one exception: my French professor my first year. That course was hell: she spoke only French and Polish and had almost zero knowledge of English. Virtually everything else I took, I liked, and wanted the classes not to be cancelled.

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COMMENTS (9 to date)
IVV writes:

That's my experience as well. When I was getting my MBA, I took a Saturday program so I could keep working. That meant the class selection was very limited, but I had a strong cohort with which to study.

One class, however, was clearly complete and utter BS--a class on online marketing. The individual class project was to sell something on eBay. Furthermore, the introduction to the class was so full of holes--from my point of view--that I ended up in a shouting argument with the professor in front of the class, on the first day.

So, I dropped the class. I couldn't dare think to waste my money sitting around learning nothing. But my classmates pulled me aside to talk. I should just calm down and take the class, they said. I'd be at risk of being able to graduate on time, they said. Don't worry that the class has no value, just finish and get your degree.

The big difference between myself and everyone else, though, was that everyone else had their company paying for the MBA, while I was paying my own way. For them, with OPM on the line, the further career chance granted by the piece of paper was the most important. For me, though, not only was I spending my own money, but my benefit from the MBA program would depend on both my degree and what I learned. Both signaling and human capital were necessary to make my investment pay off. I didn't have the company ready to promote me upon completion of the degree. So I didn't dare waste time in a class that was not going to improve me.

Luke G. writes:

Another factor that I'm not sure has been brought up before...

There is often at work in the university system a kind of protectionism. Students are required to take course X in order to graduate; it doesn’t matter how entertaining or interesting class X is, they have to take it. The professor knows that the class is assured, so the professor has little motivation to make the class interesting (especially to students who are not in their same field) because the prof faces no competition.

So students take their maximum number of cuts and rejoice in a cancelled class because they have limited choice in the quality of the class they’ve selected. I’ve noted in my experience as a college professor that elective courses or courses more pertinent to majors will have far fewer cuts and absences that the general ed required courses I have to teach. If a student has a natural interest in the subject, the student will stay more focused.

If students weren’t so chained to prerequisite and required courses, there would be less delight in cancelled classes.

Luke G. writes:

This discussion (from all three bloggers, Henderson and Kling and Caplan) reminds me of an apocryphal story I heard once about the literature professor who was teaching one last year before she retired.

This professor had an ironclad tenure. She used to be head of the department and her reputation was impeccable. However, she was tired of the tedious aspects of grading and bookkeeping, especially for students who didn’t really want to be in her course.

So on the first day of class she announced that each student had an A for the semester. The grades have already been finalized and sent to the registrar. That meant the attending class was not required. Reading the assigned literature was not required. Tests, quizzes, papers—-nothing was required. Everyone already had an A. Because of her tenure and stature, there is nothing the university would do to challenge her decision.

Now, the professor would still be at class every day at the scheduled time. There was still a syllabus, there were still exams and assigned readings, and even a term paper that she would evaluate, comment, and return. How much a student would participate in the class was up to them. But there was nothing they could do to jeopardize that A.

The fellow who was recounting this story, who had been a student in the class, was asked how the rest of the semester went. He was a bit embarrassed to admit that he never returned to class after that day. He did indeed receive an A, however.

When people are paying their own way, they want the education they're paying for. I don't know how general this is.

General enough that Adam Smith commented on it. Back then scholars earned their income (at least in part) from fees paid to them from their students.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

It's good counter-evidence to Bryan's stronger argument. But I think it's wise to stop thinking about this as evidence vs. counter-evidence. Formal education is going to be part signal and part human capital investment. If you think about it, a pure human capital view of education doesn't make much sense anyway. As soon as you award a degree associate with a pure human capital investment you're going to generate a signal of value, and you're going to get an incentive to pursue education partially fueled by signalling. The same can be said of the signalling model. No pure signal could survive with so much effort and resources expended on human capital investment. If formal education was just a signal schools would have dispensed with actual education long ago.

There's a good reason why almost no economists fall into a pure human capital or pure signaling camp.

Scott Willis writes:

My experience in college was that for courses that I was required to take as a part of general education I was delighted when they were cancelled and that I would do essentially the bare minimum to get my A and then forget the information and move on.

For the courses in my Major and especially when I got into upper division course work a cancelled class was something that I was upset about. I still wanted to learn the things that were going to be taught and would have to spend the time trying to teach myself with out the help of the professor who I was paying to teach me these things. In addition I was working at this time and had to leave early to come to school so it cost me lost wages in addition to tuition so it really made me upset.

I still hate that I had to spend so much of my time memorizing essentially useless information that I don't even remember in order to fulfill some sort of diversity mandate. I have had zero use for the Magic, Witchcraft and Religion class that I took yet I paid good money and spent many hours studying it.

Ken B writes:

Nous Canadiens, nous n'aimons pas les lec,ons de francais!

Ken B writes:

Daniel Kuehn:

If formal education was just a signal schools would have dispensed with actual education long ago.

I can think of examples. Religious schools where children memorize a religious book in a language they do not speak. "Diversity" training. I would add Deconstructionism and most of what the English department teaches these days. These are all about signalling.
Bryan Willman writes:

Luke G. is on to a large part of it.

Another part is the time burden any serious student faces - if you are working 100 hours a week to get your programming assignment done, then being told you just got given a spare 60 minutes that used to be wasted in some "required core class" is in effect a gift of sleep or gift of time.

And for that same programming course - if 90% of the grade is that very programming assignment, and most classes don't actually address that but instead yammer on about other things the student doesn't yet realize are important - then having that class canceled is a gift of time too - time to work on the assignments for that class.

These things afflicted me, and I didn't drink, didn't pursue women, didn't party.

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