Bryan Caplan  

Seth Helps Students Select Careers; Does Anyone Else?

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Seth Roberts has an interesting take on the real purpose of college.  He starts unpromisingly:
Almost all college students want to figure out what job to choose. The answer will depend on what they do well, what they enjoy, and will have a big effect on the rest of their life. The better the answer, the more successful and happy they will be. For them, that is above all what college is for.
The obvious problems with Seth's claim are that (a) most college classes have few corresponding careers, and (b) most careers have few corresponding college classes.  But he swiftly acknowledges these points:
There is nothing terrible about college classes. I don't say that this or that humanities course is "useless". The trouble is lack of balance: too many normal classes, too few "classes" that explicitly help students to learn about the world of work and how they might fit into it. Only a few colleges -- often low-prestige "trade schools" -- do much to help students learn about possible jobs, what they enjoy, and what they are good at.
Then Seth brings a big smile to my face by reminding me of my years at UC Berkeley:
Judging by how Berkeley courses are taught -- they do little to help students decide what job to do, unless they are seriously considering being a professor -- most professors have little or no interest in helping students this way. I suspect, however, they don't know what they might gain from doing so.
In short, Seth's theory doesn't fit the typical college, even at the elite level.  Unless, of course, Seth happens to be your instructor!
At Berkeley I taught a class called Psychology and the Real World whose goal was exactly that: help students find their way (a particular problem for psychology majors, few of whom go to graduate school in psychology). They could do almost anything, so long as it was off-campus. It was little work for me and the students learned a lot.
Punchline: Seth still has no explanation for why actually-existing higher education pays so well in the real world.  He should just embrace the signaling model as an accurate description of the status quo, then add, "Professors can do a lot better; I already do!"

HT: Tyler


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COMMENTS (4 to date)
August writes:

Seth is right, if the students are the clients, but arguably, the students are not the clients; those providing the subsidies are the clients. One could even consider those providing loans as clients, since, as long as people continue to over-value college, more people go to college and bankers can make more loans. The scam is lucrative right up until it isn't anymore. We lose capital/productive capability as real assets are exchanged for crap degrees. At some point there isn't enough productivity to absorb the costs.
Signaling is an important component of the explanation as to why people still go to college- especially for young women who seem extremely uncomfortable with the idea of not doing what everyone else in their socio-economic class is doing, even if they appear to understand the problem.

Tom E. Snyder writes:

I graduated from high school in 1965 and promptly went to college. After a couple of years I dropped out for personal reasons. In 1991 my son had started college and I decided I didn't want him to graduate before me. When I returned I still needed a general ed credit in economics. I loved Principles of Micro. Since I happened to have several elective credits left I took more economics and then earned my masters. Having retired from my 34 year unrelated career I now teach economics in a community college. Had it not been for that required college course I would not be where I am today. I had no idea that I would have an interest in this subject.

Hazel Meade writes:

Isn't this what high schools are supposed to do? The high schools I went to, students were allowed a choice of electives from sciences, languages, arts, and literature. The point of which was to help kids decide which subjects they wanted to study in college.

I'm actually surprised to hear anyone describe college as a place where you find out what you want to do. The way I was raised, you should arrive at college already knowing what you want to study. You should be thinking about it seriously by junior year in high school.

Obviously, people are going to change their minds. But if high schools aren't offering students enough electives to explore their interests before they get to college, maybe that is part of the problem.

Roman Duda writes:

"Seth Helps Students Select Careers; Does Anyone Else?"

80,000 Hours does! For example we've written up a guide on how to find a job you'll love.

We agree that university education provides little guidance to students on which careers they should choose. We think that this is a big problem because it means that huge numbers of students unwittingly choose unsatisfying jobs and worse still, they end up doing far less good through their careers than they otherwise could have.

Disclaimer: I work at 80,000 Hours.

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