Bryan Caplan  

Tyler Momentarily Embraces Signaling

Two Improper Concepts to Measu... James W. Ceaser on the Constit...
Loyal Marginal Revolution reader Nick_L asks Tyler:
What's the most important economics question you ever asked?
Tyler answers:
"What is the required type font for submitting this dissertation?"
I'm fond of saying that if I refused to study a foreign language in high school I wouldn't be a professor today.  Tyler's example works just as well: If he refused to format his dissertation properly, he wouldn't be a professor today either.

Human capital theory overlooks so many big inconvenient truths about education I wonder how anyone who ever went to school can accept it - even as an approximation.

COMMENTS (14 to date)
Gabriel Rossman writes:

"Technical note: We originally wrote this article in Word, but then we converted it to Latex to make it look more like science."

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Two thoughts:

1. But who actually refuses this after being corrected on the formatting? I wonder if a candidate actually refused to change the font they would fail to give him the degree. It's tough to say because I doubt it's ever happened. My mother-in-law tells a similar story. My wife is a twin and when she was born she was bruised and kind of ugly looking from getting hit by her sister. Somebody at the hospital came by to sell my mother in law the new baby pictures. She refused - she said she had no need for a baby picture where her baby's face was beaten up... she'd wait a little while and take her own pictures. They had never had any patient refuse to buy the baby pictures before. Guess what happened... she got the pictures for free because they didn't know what else to do with them.

2. I really don't like your heavy emphasis on signaling (although obviously signaling is part of the returns to education). Put it this way: let's grant that it's true that if Tyler hadn't formatted his dissertation correctly he wouldn't be a professor (I doubt it, but let's grant that). However, it's also true that if Tyler didn't perform at a Harvard graduate school level for five or six or however many years he also wouldn't be a professor today. So much for making all that much of signaling.

There are hoops to jump through and there are signal effects. Pointing those two things out hardly implies there's not a productivity-based return to education.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

btw - glad to see you discussing Bob Lerman's work earlier. He's been a mentor of mine for years - first at the Urban Institute, and now at American University.

If he discussed recent work he's done with apprenticeships in the long term care industry, I worked with him on that project. I did the data analysis and was on three of the five site visits.

Sonic Charmer writes:

This doesn't strike me as 'signaling', it strikes me as bureaucracy navigation. This is indeed a skill that our society rewards (and I would say, increasingly so). You could, perhaps, assert that the bureaucracy navigation 'signals' something else (if only, that you're good at navigating bureaucracy!) but that seems to put the cart before the horse.

Just because a stupid barrier rewarding a pointless/wasteful skill is in place doesn't mean it's a case of 'signaling'.

Hasdrubal writes:

Aren't those signals required to get through education, not a signal gained as a benefit of education? Doesn't the signalling theory of education say that education is a signal, not that all you have to do to complete the formal requirements of education is to signal?

tom writes:

I agree with Sonic and Hasdrubal--these are not the same kind of signalling you normally talk about.

Wasn't Tyler's big signal the decision to use his abilities to DO a thesis, not the later decision to comply with the rules for submitting the thesis?

Kevin writes:

My impression from my undergrad thesis class was that your final thesis (paper and defense) could be methodologically nonsensical and grammatically uninterpretable and you would skate by with a top notch grade, but heaven help you if your formatting or presentation times were off.

Having spent the past two semesters putting together a self-designed, labor-intensive, multi-experiment thesis about the size/scope of a (weak) doctoral dissertation, it was demoralizing to watch people parade through their defenses with (N=13) samples and methodologies obviously doomed to failure from the start... and then they get A's just as a matter of course. I felt like I had missed out on a year-long vacation.

Seth writes:

I agree that 'bureaucracy navigation' has been growing in importance. I also believe that education has largely become a signal of your potential with this skill.

Roger Sweeny writes:

@Daniel Kuehn I really don't like your heavy emphasis on signaling ...if Tyler didn't perform at a Harvard graduate school level for five or six or however many years he also wouldn't be a professor today. So much for making all that much of signaling.

Bryan has said many times that college is good at providing human capital for becoming an academic researcher--or something similar. It's only the other 95% plus of jobs for which it provides mostly signalling.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Roger -
And yet we still get these claims about how people can't even accept human capital theory as an approximation... hmmm...

I just don't like Bryan's constant contrasting of these perspectives (indicative in the title too). It's not like there's a few signaling theory economists battling against a bunch of human capital theory economists. Almost everyone thinks both theories are relevant to understanding education.

But pretending otherwise and framing the debate as one that marginalizes signaling theory is a good way to promote books on signaling theory.

Roger Sweeny writes:


You may well be right that, "Almost everyone thinks both theories [human capital and signalling] are relevant to understanding education." At least when it comes to economists who keep up with the literature.

However, that certainly wasn't the case twenty years ago. One of the things I got out of George Stigler's Memoirs of an Unregulated Economist is that a new economic theory probably won't get accepted unless its proponents hammer, hammer, hammer away about how much of an improvement it is.

Of course, the signalling theory isn't new--but it is only recently that its proponents have been numerous enough and energetic enough to make much progress in the profession. They have had to battle the obvious self-interest of academic economists. Both the jobs and the self-esteem of academic economists depend on a widespread acceptance of human capital formation as "what colleges do." If students and parents and politicians ceased to believe that, they would be out of a job, or forced to retreat to a Samuelsonian, "The only coin worth having is the applause of my peers."

I am waiting for the first (successful!) politician to say, "Too much money goes to colleges. Lots of students don't learn much of anything useful. More than anything else, their degree simply signals potential employers that they are 'smart, hard-working, and conformist'."

Steve Sailer writes:

If you want to have a spec script read in Hollywood, there are extremely specific and disparate rules for how to format a 30 minute sit-com, a 60 minute drama, and a movie. People want to be able to hold the screenplay in their hand and be able to tell from its weight how many minutes long it will be when filmed. But, mostly, they want to know that you'll play by their rules, no matter how arbitrary, and won't make trouble for them by wanting to do everything your way. (They have enough trouble with the actors.)

Glen S. McGhee writes:

"Human capital theory overlooks so many big inconvenient truths about education I wonder how anyone who ever went to school can accept it - even as an approximation."

Bravo! But no so much in Germany and other countries where transitions to adulthood are handled more efficiently. In the US, social capital is the coin of the realm.

guthrie writes:

@ Steve, thank you, yes. And if someone really likes your script, they don't ask about your degrees or where you went to school as a pre-req to produce it.

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