Bryan Caplan  

The Sheepskin Nightmare

Ralph Hawtrey... The Modality of Monogamy...
Have you ever dreamed that you're suddenly one class, credit, final exam, or semester short of graduation?  Many people, myself included, have this recurring nightmare.  There a whole reddit on it.  A typical case:
I've had this kind of dream very frequently over the past several years. Even though I graduated college 10 years ago, I dream that I'm back in college but not the one I went to (oftentimes several credits short of graduating) and begrudgingly have to do one more year or semester, and feel very disappointed. In my dream I'm back in school at my current age, with kids who are at least 10 years younger and I feel uncomfortable.
In contrast, I've never ever heard of someone dreaming about suddenly forgetting whatever job skills they learned in school.

How should we interpret these stylized facts about the dream world?  Most plausibly: Belief in the sheepskin effect is extremely deeply rooted.  When you're stuck in this nightmare, you're often confused by the discovery that you failed to cross the educational finish law.  But the idea that failing to cross the educational finish line has dire consequences doesn't confuse you at all.  Whether awake or asleep, you take the power of the sheepskin effect for granted (unless, like many labor economists, you're struggling to talk yourself out of the obvious). 

Furthermore, people also have a deeply rooted belief that crossing educational finish lines has a big effect on employability but little effect on job skills.  The nightmare isn't that you suddenly can't do your job.  The nightmare is that you're the same person you were yesterday, but society throws you into limbo because your papers aren't in order.

Dream evidence is obviously easy to dismiss.  Human capital purists may even say I'm desperately grasping at straws.  But these reactions strike me as dogmatic.  At minimum, sheepskin nightmares highlight the fact that educated humans, no matter how competent, have pronounced anxiety about their official educational status.  Why would they have this anxiety if they firmly believe that competence, not credentials, rule the social world?

COMMENTS (15 to date)
Kevin writes:

My whole MSc has been a Sheepskin Nightmare. High cost (relative to other programs or, especially, not doing the degree) and very little new skills to show for the time spent. Despite this, it's expected to open up a lot of new job prospects post-thesis.

Just one more semester. Just one more!

John T. Kennedy writes:

In high school I often dreamed I would fail to graduate - and reasonably so because by the rules I should have been failed. I wasn't concerned that I needed a diploma, except for what my Dad would have to say about it.

Toby writes:

Perhaps a bit silly, but how do you distinguish between certification that you have acquired certain human capital and the certification that you had the ability to do so?

It provides information about your human capital at the same time that it provides a signal, or do you consider these two to be the same?

Maciano writes:

Wow, I've had this dream often. I always thought I was the only one? How plain us humans are!

It's very unpleasant, you have this haunting feeling you had, as in your last 2 years of university. You still need to finish a few courses, you still need approval from someone and confirmation from some institution before you finally can start real life and make some money.

Indeed, while pleasant during weekends, studying always felt like you have to "do your time" in university.

I think my personality falsifies Bryan's idea. Surely, I've always believed competence > education. In fact, I've believed genes/family determine your life outcome since I was around 20.

JKB writes:

Can't say I've had the nightmare, but I did only complete my last few credits because I knew I needed that piece of paper. I was totally burned out. Still as graduation approached, I went to the Physics department head asking how I could graduate, I don't know this stuff. This was the mid-eighties, he simply said everyone felt that way.

Interesting, now that I write it out, I see even back then there was the sense of credentialism and a fear for human capital development. Turns out credentials win. The job I ended up in did require a certain number of credit hours in physics and calculus, none of that mattered without the 'sheepskin'.

Same with professional certifications. They require X number of class hours regardless of whether you could ace the test when you walk in or not. Outside learning was useful functionally, but invisible in hiring/promotions until you "did the class" and "got the cert". As an independent "learner", I spent many a bored day doing the time, 40 hours here, 24 hours there, to get to take the test to get the cert and the re-cert. And always, learn for the test in such training, thinking was hazardous as you'd consider using it in the real world and fail the test.

Thomas L. Knapp writes:

"In contrast, I've never ever heard of someone dreaming about suddenly forgetting whatever job skills they learned in school."

I graduated the US Marine Corps' Infantry Training School in 1986 with perfect exams on my tests as a mortar gunner.

Later, I had a recurring dream of being on the gun line, receiving a fire mission and then looking at the mortar and having no idea on earth how to do whatever I was supposed to do with it.

RPLong writes:

Why should we assume these dreams relate directly to our perspective on education? All these dreams might be is a subconscious expression of our natural desire to cross life's major milestones, and the fear that we might have left one behind. Convocation is generally understood to be the end of "youth" or "childhood" and the beginning of "adulthood."

Dreams that depict a failure to transition to adulthood - thwarted by some minor technicality like missing credits or that one class you haven't been attending all year long, but which you suddenly remember on the morning of the final examination - probably have less to do with educational models and more to do with our self-doubt as adults, or a rekindling of our old childhood insecurities.

A Non-eMouse writes:

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Granite26 writes:

I'm confident in my possession of the skills I learned. It's intrinsic to myself. The credential acquired, however, is at the mercy of an outside institution. In my case, an outside institution that, with malicious glee, posted the payment of 30 year old traffic as evidence that they held our credential (or the real evidence thereof) hostage forever more, based on our satisfaction of whatever requirements they wished.

The knowledge is mine. The credential is at the mercy of others.

A little bit less first-world-problem is the fact that graduation is something that is the culmination of lots of focus and effort. This creates a larger emotional resonance than the incremental acquisition of specific skills. The greater emotional resonance creates a larger psychological target for your anxieties.

Jeff writes:

From that Reddit thread:

10 years here. Still highly stressful dreams about unprepared tests, not attending class, etc.
This is basically how PTSD works. Just much more horrifying waking up thinking your buddy is burning alive trapped in a truck while you stand there helpless than forgetting to do homework.

That is...discouraging. Does this reflect more negatively on the US system of education or my neurotic, overly-sensitive brain?

Ray Lopez writes:

I used to have this dream when I was younger, but no longer. What does that say? Now that I've made it, I no longer care about status (I quit working for others years ago, now I run my own consultancy online).

Nathan Whitehead writes:

A counterargument: if nightmares about not graduating count as evidence for the sheepskin effect, then imposter syndrome counts as evidence for the human capital model.

The typical person I know of that has imposter syndrome has a BA, MS, PhD, and 5 years professional experience. Yet they worry that they are not "really" an expert at what they are doing and are totally incompetent.

I think these things are much more about psychology than reality myself.

Mike H writes:

In my version of the dream, it's a couple weeks to the end of the last semester. I have a couple of classes I've never attended, usually English because that was my worst class. I have some final projects I frantically try to finish in the hopes of getting the D's I need in order to graduate...

...with my Physics PhD.

I just finished it two weeks ago.

Bill Conerly writes:

I have dreams that I'm going to get a low grade--and I went to a college that did not give grades at all!

Daublin writes:

Similar to Nathan's point about the imposter syndrome, I've run into people in more creative fields that are constantly worried if they'll ever have another big, good idea. They worry that maybe their past success wasn't from being good, but from being lucky. Lucky that they stumbled across one good idea. If it's luck rather than skill, it can run out.

These seem like exceptions to the general rule, though. In the common case, actual professional skill is something you succeed at every single day. Once you succeed at something for hundreds of work days in a row, you really lose all worry that it is going to keep happening. Based on your own observations, your skills are as reliable as the sun coming up. Degrees? Well that's a matter of a institutional opinion.

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