Bryan Caplan  

Two Comments on Coy

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Check out Bloomberg's Peter Coy's fair and fun review of The Case Against Education. Two reactions:

1. Narrow point.  Coy writes:
Notice that this signal has nothing to do with what he or she may have learned. The signal to employers--of diligence, persistence, and conformity--is just as strong whether the applicant studies Sanskrit or cement mixing.
Yes, you can signal diligence and persistence by studying anything.  But you can't signal conformity by signaling anything!  To signal conformity, you have to study what's expected and valued in your culture - or sub-culture.  That's why students still can't safely substitute a computer language for Spanish, French, or Latin (!).

2. Broad point.  Coy again:
Caplan's solution--slashing public support for public education--is what's problematic. He argues that if subsidies were taken away, poor youths who couldn't afford college would be unharmed, because employers would begin to view a diploma as a signal of family money, not brains. Maybe. But those strivers would also be deprived of the human capital that college builds--which even Caplan estimates at a fifth of the value of a degree and some other economists say is substantially higher. In a 2015 column for the Hechinger Report, an education website, Andre Perry, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes that the cliché "college isn't for everyone" is code for "those people aren't smart enough for college."
In my book, I blame ubiquitous global support for education on Social Desirability Bias.  Human beings like saying - and believing - whatever sounds good, even if what sounds good makes little sense.  My question for Coy: If deleting 80% of the perceived social rewards of education makes you no more willing to cut public support for public education, what would?  What if we deleted 90% of education's perceived social rewards?  95%  99%?  I know it sounds nice to say, "If it helps one person, it's worth it," but that's crazy.  No one spends their own money so casually - nor should they.  Furthermore, you can easily use some of the budgetary savings to help "strivers" in more cost-effective ways.  So why not?

The Andre Perry line is likewise steeped in Social Desirability Bias.  If I wanted to join the NBA, an honest assessment would be, "You lack the necessary height, endurance, dexterity, background, and drive."  So what's so awful about saying that some people aren't smart enough for college?  Sure, if you want to seem nice, you'll tell everyone they can do anything they set their minds to.  But if you want to actually be nice, you'll tactfully try to match people's goals with their aptitudes.

COMMENTS (4 to date)
robc writes:
the cliché "college isn't for everyone" is code for "those people aren't smart enough for college."

This is clearly BS.

The easiest counter-example is my nephew. From his HS or similar, with his family background, and his grades, almost everyone goes to college.

He knew it wasn't for him and didnt. His peers are seniors (or juniors still, or dropouts) while he is making really good money in the HVAC industry.

He was top of his class in his training and got his job from the recommendation of his teacher, probably because nearly everyone as smart as him was off at college instead.

Noah Carl writes:

Bryan, you might be interested to know (if you didn't already) that Marx was against free university tuition:

john hare writes:

Following the last link to Brians' 2007 post was quite interesting. The post suggested matching effort with ability. Most of the comments amounted to "You're saying don't bother trying because it doesn't matter." and went on from there. Ignoring limitations is unhealthy even if the limitations are not very clear.

Ignoring certain limitations of mine has cost me at different times. Running a business has taught me that judging potential employees and customers is not actually intuitive. I have learned to look for certain markers and still recognize that I will never be that good a judge of character. Learning that was expensive. Based on my experiences with other companies, I thought I was able to teach the trade to anybody I hired, expensive delusion. It has been more productive to attempt to fit the job to the man than vice-versa.

Illusions are expensive in life outside the workplace as well. It seems to me that young people would be helped by a basic understanding of cost/benefit or risk/reward ratios. Some people do not have what it takes to succeed on the academic route, just as others don't have what it takes to succeed in HVAC or construction. While effort does get better results than non-effort, effort targeted to ones strengths will have better payoff than effort in an area where one doesn't have the aptitude. It is unfortunate that this concept is so unpopular.

Floccina writes:

My younger son was not a good student and hated school, so when he graduated college he, found a job as plumber's helper, stayed living with us and saving his money. His brother (1 1/2 years older) went to college. After a couple of years the younger took the money that he had saved plus some college money that he got from my father and bought a condo. His brother graduated with a degree in engineering 3 years ago, the older has not caught up with the younger yet.

Not a good enough a student (not smart enough, whatever) is a good reason to skip college, he'd most likely have gotten nothing from it but lost years and spent money.


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