Bryan Caplan  

You Might Be Signaling

Woolsey and Sumner on QE3... The economists' alternative to...
With apologies to Jeff Foxworthy...

If you bothered to enroll in school or pay tuition, you might be signaling.

If you worry about failing the final exam, but not subsequently forgetting what you learned, you might be signaling.

If you don't think cheating is "only cheating yourself," you might be signaling.

If you seek out "easy A's," you might be signaling.

If you rejoice when teachers cancel class, you might be signaling.

Feel free to add to the list in the comments.  If your entry is striking enough, I'll add it (and an endnote of gratitude) to The Case Against Education.

COMMENTS (47 to date)
Matthew Dodson writes:

If you respond to this blog post with a 'you might be signalling' assertion in hopes of it being added to your book so that you can say you contributed to 'The Case Against Education' you might be signalling.

But really, my addition to the list is: If you plan/expect a career unrelated to your major or area of study.

Tyler Cowen writes:

"If you prefer a MOOC because only the hardy make it through, you might be signaling."

Jason Collins writes:

If you ask "will this be in the test?", you might be signalling.

Jody writes:

If you sell your textbooks at the end of the class instead of keeping them as references...

Debbie writes:

If you ask for extra credit to avoid failing a class...

Joshua Miller writes:

I like this project and look forward to the book, but this particular meme seems a little too precious to fit. That said, I'd like to see you address a counter-signaling theory of education. Are we subsidizing that? Should we stop?

Here, let me get you started:

If you brag about loving learning more than credentials, you might be counter-signaling.

If you audit extra classes, you might be counter-signaling.

If you ask for extensions rather than turn in less-than-your-best work, you might be signaling, but if you just blow the deadline without an extension and then turn in a publishable paper, THEN you might be counter-signaling.

If you test out of all the intro courses so you can take more classes renowned for their difficulty, you might be counter-signaling.

If you seek out the professor in office hours and social settings "just to hang out," you might be counter-signaling.

If you discount the positive externalities of higher education using models that focus on data from compulsory secondary schooling and deliberately ignore national wage effects, you might be counter-signaling.

[This one is a little on the nose: If you use the skills you learned in college and graduate school to defend a signaling model of education, you might be countersignaling.)

kwesi writes:

(From my experience as a TA:) If you show up to a problem solving session only to seek out the answers...

Franklin Harris writes:

If you never attend a class except on test day, you might be signaling.

clown writes:

If you only care about learning what's on the test

Timothy James writes:

If you're not infatuated with your respective field, then you might be signaling.

Alex Powers writes:

If you get a table-waiting degree from an otherwise prestigious university, you may be signaling...

Abe writes:

Haha. Education is a service you pay for but want under-delivered. :)

noiselull writes:

"If you choose to fulfill your language requirement with Afrikaans, you might be signaling."

noiselull writes:

"If you major in a STEM field and plan to go to law school, you might be signaling."

noiselull writes:

"If you use CLEP or AP exams for college credit, you might be signaling."

Fonzy Shazam writes:

If you changed your major from economics to marketing, you may be signaling.

[url fixed. You doubled up the http. Please check your links before posting comments.--Econlib Ed.]

If you complain that someone is 'throwing off the grade curve', you might be signalling.

jc writes:

If you spend most of each lecture on facebook or playing Angry Birds...

Alex Godofsky writes:

Franklin Harris writes:

If you never attend a class except on test day, you might be signaling.

Or you could just derive no educational value from lectures.

A lot of people here are expressing similar sentiments (to Franklin's). In my experience lectures were ridiculous wastes of time compared to just reading the lecture notes or textbook.

lighthouse writes:


If you worry about failing the final exam, but not subsequently forgetting what you learned, you might be signaling


If you never attend a class except on test day, you might be signaling.

In my economics curriculum, I had to take mandatory courses on subjects that were rather unrelated to what I was really interested in. For example, for the Law classes I had to take, I did exactly this: show up only for the exam, while having spend only about a week working with the professor's textbook. I actually passed the course with a very good grade. I was not worried about forgetting the material, because I took it as a practice for learning and being able to express complex materials in a short time.

I believe that the signaling model as presented here underestimates the effects of university education in providing a set of heuristics that allows you to tackle new problems (that might even be unrelated to your field). For me, that is the true strength of university education.

Curtis writes:

If your major has the word "Studies" in it, you might be signaling.

If you applied for college based on party school rankings, you might be signaling.

John Palmer writes:

In grad school, I signaled (quite consciously, I might add) by going to see profs AFTER the course was over with follow-up questions about the course material.

Douglas Tengdin writes:

If you refuse to help a classmate with his homework (even though you know that teaching a subject is the best way to learn it) because his lower grade will push yours higher up the curve ...

BTW, if you use AP or CLEP credits, you might *want* to take advanced classes rather than repeat the elementary items you learned in high school. String theory and nanomaterials *might* be more interesting than Newtonian mechanics or Boyle's law. Those *might* be anti-signaling devices.

AMW writes:

If you've ever asked, "will this be on the test?"

If you've ever tried to get your professor off on a tangent to waste class time.

Lee Kelly writes:

If you rarely think about your chosen field of study outside of class or study time, then you might be signaling.

George writes:

If you mention the topic of signaling, you might be signaling.

Roger Sweeny writes:

If you plan your ski trip/family cruise/whatever for the middle of the term because "everybody else will be in class then," you might be signaling.

AMW writes:

I want to edit one of my submissions above (especially since I see now that I was beaten to the punch):

If you've ever asked "will this be on the test," but never asked "when will we use this in real life," you might be signalling.

Karl Gallagher writes:

If your resume lists your GPA but not your major . . . you might be signalling.

Phil writes:

If you get mad at the idea that someone can do your job better than you even though they don't have the educational credentials you have ... you might be signalling.

Phil writes:

If you dismiss people who disagree with you, with a legitimate argument, on the grounds that you have more formal education on the subject ... you might be signalling.

Mike Hammock writes:

How about "If you allow your students to skip the final exam if their course grade is high enough, you might believe that education is about signalling."

Or I guess it could be rewritten from the student's perspective as:

"If you stop coming to class when you find out your class average is high enough that your professor will let you skip the final exam, you might be signalling."

Phil writes:
"If you allow your students to skip the final exam if their course grade is high enough, you might believe that education is about signalling."

Actually, I'd argue that that's ANTI-signalling. If you believe that once a student has proven his mastery of the material one way, then he doesn't have to prove it another way just for formalistic, signalling reasons, that's got to be a good thing.

Phil writes:

If you believe that your prospective employer should not formally test your knowledge or capabilities, and just hire you because you have a degree, you might be signalling.

Phil writes:

If you're a Canadian civil servant, and like the idea that promotions should continue to be based on how well you perform on a knowledge exam, instead of a test of how productive you will be in the actual job you're applying for ... you might be signalling.

anon88 writes:

If you apply for a job teaching math at a community college, and spend hours listing the courses you taught in industry, and the training material you've written, and the good feedback you received from your students, and the blog posts you've written explaining some of the topics that you might be teaching ....

... and then when you submit your application online, they make you check off a box to indicate whether you have a M.Sc., so they can more easily filter you out without looking at your actual suitability for the job ...

... you might be a little bit peeved about the signalling, not just that they prefer credentials to ability, but that they didn't just tell you that beforehand.

(Do I sound bitter? I guess I should have expected that an educational institution would overweight educational credentials.)

Duncan writes:

"If you choose classes that create a convenient timetable for yourself (e.g. if you live off-campus and choose classes that all meet in the afternoon),"
"If you are already familiar with much of the material covered in a class you have chosen,"
"If you have a large preference for a class that you think will give you more contact with attractive fellow students,"
"If you appeal your grades,"

Grieve Chelwa writes:

1) If you pick your courses based on who's teaching them, you might be signalling. Eg I won't take Public Choice this year because Prof Caplan is teaching it and I have heard that he's stingy with his grades. I'd rather take it next year when Prof Caplan will be on sabbatical

2) If you cram past years' exam questions before this year's exam, you might be signalling

3) If you dedicate a good portion of your study time to figuring out the hidden patterns in the way your professor sets his exams, you might be signalling

Seth writes:

...if you add the initials of your college or graduate degree behind your name on your business cards or LinkedIn profile.

Krishnan writes:

Caplan is making a sweeping generalization - and I imagine would give himself sufficient room to argue that "no, I am not saying exactly this or that" - the usual messiness that seems to come with the social sciences.

Stripped to the core - what Caplan's thesis is that going to a university is all about signalling - employers do not care what you may have learned but that you spent X years getting that degree. (Yes, they assume you learned something).

I cannot speak of all disciplines - but will do so for engineering, at least some disciplines.

We are aware that what students may learn in any particular class may indeed not be relevant to any job in particular. I like to put it this way - "Getting an engineering degree is like learning (or self-teaching) how to solve X problems using Y methods and Z techniques so that when the engineer is on a job dealing with the X+1th problem that no one could have anticipated, the experience with X problems using Y methods and Z techniques will allow him/her to solve X+1 using Y+1 (or Y+2 or ...) while inventing OR learning to use Z+1st technique. Engineering students can always go back and complain "You did not teach us about A and B and C and in my first job I had to learn A and B and C" - and another student will come back and say "Wow, what I picked up in this class my third semester here came in handy my first day on the job"

As long as attempts are being made to update the curriculum that reflects the changing nature of the industry (and yes graduate schools) (and today, we cannot even predict where the jobs may be) the students should be OK. Some schools tend to tailor their instructions/curricula with the assumption that ALL students will go to graduate school/be professor - some have a diferent mixture.

I have no doubt that the intrinsic intelligence and drive of those seeking that engineering degree has more to do with what they learn than perhaps classroom instructions - and yet, challenging them to solve problems that were not homework problems or directly from the book that had solutions all seek to check and see who can think on their feet and come up with solutions. At MIT, in their School of Practice, students are actually interned to come up with solutions to specific design problems for which they have had no prior experience. Talking with engineers after about 6 months or a year in their first job, you realize that challenging them to think about and provide solutions to problems are indeed productive.

There is indeed a case to be made for education (sure, I have a vested interest). And sure not everything universities do are designed well - GPA's are rising (even in engineering) and the flush of students seeking that instant middle class lifestyle has corrupted the process that leads to the awarding of a well-earned degree. If we do not do something, an engineering degree will be what a High School diploma is today - there are many heads buried in the sand about the state of education in general and in science/engineering.

Piotr Pieniążek writes:

If you really don't care what [material/subject] you are learning, YMBS.

Brian writes:

If you teach content that was part of a pre-requisite course, you might be singling.

If more than half of your classes grading is based on multiple choice questions, you might be signaling.

If more than half of your students get A's in your classes, you might be singling.

If you give lectures on the exact same content that is clearly explained in the required text books with-out being asked by students due to not understanding something, you might be singling.
If you make little to no notes on submitted papers, you might be singling.
If the combined writing in your class is less than 6000 words (except math), you might be singling.

English Professor writes:

If you think that the most important thing about college is the friends you make, . . .

If you take out huge loans to attend an Ivy League school when you could have gone to an excellent state school without needing any loans, . . .

If you brag about the big-name professors whose lectures you attended, . . .

If you're happy with grade inflation, . . .

If you ask your girlfriend to write your papers for you, . . .

Bryan writes:

Hat tip to Kanye West:

"...that major that she majored in don't make no money, but she won't drop out, her parents will look at her funny. Tell me that ain't insecure..."

Ben writes:
Andy writes:

Bryan, I like your posts on the signaling model of education a lot. Recently wrote a post on my blog about this.

I would add one more example: if you take a course or exam in order to add fancy initials after your name (CFA, PhD, etc.).

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