Bryan Caplan  

My Interview with Princeton University Press

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The "signaling model of education" is the foundation of your argument. What is this model?

The standard view of education, often called the "human capital model," says that education raises income by training students for their future jobs. The signaling model, in contrast, says that education raises income by certifying students for their future jobs. Doing well in school is a great way to convince employers that you're smart, hard-working, and conformist. Once they're convinced, career rewards naturally follow.

Could you give an analogy?

Sure. There are two ways to raise the value of a diamond. One is to hand it to an expert gem smith so he can beautifully cut the stone. The other is to hand it to a reputable appraiser with a high-powered eyepiece so he can certify the pre-existing excellence of the stone. The first story is like human capital; the second story is like signaling.

Is it really either/or?

Of course not. The human capital and signaling models both explain part of education's career benefits. But I say signaling is at least half the story--and probably more.


In 2001, Michael Spence won a Nobel Prize for his work on educational signaling. Can the idea really be so neglected?  What is your value-added here?

Signaling enjoys high status in pure economic theory. But most empirical labor and education economists are dismissive. Either they ignore signaling, cursorily acknowledge it in a throw-away footnote, or hastily conclude it's quantitatively trivial. My book argues that there's overwhelming evidence that signaling is a mighty force in the real world. There's strong evidence inside of economics--and even stronger evidence in educational psychology, sociology of education, and education research. And finally, signaling has abundant support from common sense.


Given today's political climate, who do you think will be most receptive to your message?  The most hostile?

Support for education is bipartisan. Most people, regardless of party, favor more and better education. It's no accident that both Bushes wanted to be known as "education presidents." That said, I think my biggest supporters will be pragmatists and fiscal hawks. And my biggest opponents will be ideological fans of education and fiscal doves. Most progressives will probably dislike my book, but they really shouldn't. If you care about social justice, you should be looking for reforms that help people get good jobs without fancy degrees.

You're a full professor at George Mason and a Princeton Ph.D. How can you of all people possibly challenge the social value of education?

I see myself as a whistleblower. Personally, I've got nothing to complain about; the education system has given me a dream job for life. However, when I look around, I see a huge waste of students' time and taxpayers' money. If I don't let them know their time and money's being misspent, who will? And if I wasn't a professor, who would take me seriously?

COMMENTS (1 to date)
Aswin Rajappa writes:

Would be interested to hear your thoughts on the value of signaling in the labor market for both job seekers and employers. I’s argue that employers are the largest “consumers” of educational signaling and would be another group that would push back against your case - alternate approaches to sorting through job applicants to “truly” measure skills would be more cumbersome/ expensive and shift the cost of this from job seekers to employers

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