Bryan Caplan  

Me in the Los Angeles Times

The Tea Party is Dead... Economics Everywhere Even in S...
When I was in high school, I wrote quite a few letters to my local newspapers.  The Daily News published a few, but I don't think I ever cracked the Los Angles Times.  Until yesterday.  Highlight from my piece in the Opinion column:
Almost everyone pays lip service to the glories of education, but actions speak louder than words. Ponder this: If a student wants to study at Princeton, he doesn't really need to apply or pay tuition. He can simply show up and start taking classes. As a professor, I assure you that we make near-zero effort to stop unofficial education; indeed, the rare, earnestly curious student touches our hearts. At the end of four years at Princeton, though, the guerrilla student would lack one precious thing: a diploma. The fact that almost no one tries this route -- saving hundreds of thousands of dollars along the way -- is a strong sign that students understand the value of certification over actual learning.
Read the whole thing.

P.S. As you may know, op-ed authors don't choose their titles (or subtitles).  "School is all about signaling, not skill-building," is an obvious overstatement.  My real view, as I state in the article, the book, and many other places, is that school is mostly signaling.  My preferred point estimate is 80% signaling, but I'm not married to that number.

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COMMENTS (10 to date)
Ak Mike writes:

The fallacy of this argument is that the value of the Princeton degree is not the education that Princeton offers to undergraduates. That's not really much different than that offered by scores or hundreds of other colleges. The value of the degree is that the bearer was one of the 2% of applicants who was able to gain admission to Princeton. The quality of the students, not of the education, is what is important, and a freeloader lacks that qualification no matter how many Princeton courses she or he may take.

Yaakov Schatz writes:

Can the guerrilla student submit assignments and have them graded? participate in labs? take tests and have them graded? There is an enormous difference between studying because you really want to know this information and studying for a test. Somehow, when you take tests that are graded you put more into it.

john hare writes:

You put more effort into being able to pass the test, but likely less effective learning than the dedicated scholar that is passionate about learning something. It is amazingly easy to learn more about a particular subject than that required to pass a graded test, and retention is often higher.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

By the way, here is an article about a student who audited classes at several top universities:

Alberto Zaragoza Comendador writes:

Good summary, but one thing that bothers me a little bit is that you didn't mention ability bias. A lot of people (including Noah Smith in the piece he wrote back in December) will point out that, in fact, students who manage to cross the finish line and graduate are different from those who drop out - and that this could explain the sheepskin effect. By different we mean better able to earn higher incomes (whether the specific factor is ability to socialize, intelligence, perseverance, etc. is unclear; all that is lumped as "ability bias").

The readers who wonder that are correct. But controlling for ability bias does not eliminate the sheepskin effect. What's more, controlling for ability also reduces the return on non-graduation years; students who drop out as sophomores are different from those who drop out as freshmen. So in the end the sheepskin effect looks pretty much as big after accounting for ability bias as before.

My guess is the average reader has an intuition of the contents of my first paragraph but no idea about the second's.

Fred Anderson writes:

I'm pretty sure that there is also a body of literature on the way college changes the social fitness of students. Almost that old saw about, "It's not what you know, it's who you know." Certainly, the (wise) graduate from Harvard has access to a classmate contact network that isn't available to the kid from Podunk U. (I say "wise" because a few are social isolates who never see the value of making friends in college.) I feel sure I've seen research on college outcomes that indicate it's not so much what you studied as where you studied it.

I taught for many years at one of those ex-teachers-colleges, where most of our students were the first in their family to go. A major part of our task was taking working-class kids and getting them ready for their middle-class future. Our majors were almost all middle-class entry fields; school teacher, nursing, criminology (a.k.a. policeman), accountant, etc. The environment engendered not so much less interest in hunting and bowling, as it familiarized them with football and golf. (We didn't have an equestrian team; that would be for more prestigious colleges.). Moving them away from a shot and a beer and toward mixed drinks and maybe wine etiquette. A good part of our work in the business school was simply teaching the jargon, so that once they got a job, and a co-worker started babbling on about accrued interest, they weren't standing there feeling clueless.

I couldn't help but notice that college one hundred years ago bore an un-nerving resemblance to the brainwashing of captives in the Korean War. We isolate them far from their old family and friends. We surround them with new associates who model the expected behaviors. We take away their old clothes and possessions and substitute our uniforms and standard issue. We may deprive them of sleep. We immerse them in group activities (e.g., Phys. Ed., group cheering and fight songs). Most colleges removed the distractions of an opposite sex. We control when they sleep ("lights out!"), and what they eat in the dining hall. We require them to attend (our) chapel and mumble along with the songs & doctrine. And the reward (and punishment) schedules are all in the firm grip of the faculty (a.k.a. "Who do you have to please to get along around here").

A sad side effect; As we moved them from working class to middle class, we often left them alienated from their old family and friends. I'd be curious to know what the divorce rate was among people who'd been subjected to such a class change.

Nathan Smith writes:

To what question is "80%" the answer? And is the implicit question competently framed? Take a supposition about the value of education as simple as Scenario A:

1. Employers hire based on observable human capital.
2. Schools equip students with human capital and make it observable to employers through grades, degrees, etc.
3. Human capital can be acquired by other means than school, e.g., books, online courses, but this creates no credible evidence about what you learned.

Is the human capital contribution to education in this scenario:
(a) 100%, because it's human capital that employers are looking for;
(b) 0%, because human capital alone is useless without a degree to prove that you have it; or
(c) something else?

In principle, if Scenario A describes the world, we might discover that empirically by running the following regression...

Labor market premium = beta1*skills + beta2*credentials + beta3*skills*credentials

... and seeing that beta3 is large and statistically significant, while beta1 and beta2 would be small and insignificant. But then we couldn't talk about "80%" being skills or credentials, right?

Yaakov Schatz writes:

Can the guerrilla student submit assignments and have them graded? participate in labs? take tests and have them graded? There is an enormous difference between studying because you really want to know this information and studying for a test. Somehow, when you take tests that are graded you put more into it.

Auntie Greed writes:

Can we re-prioritize the delivery of missions in educational systems rather than starving the educational systems of funding? Parents, family and community can socialize the children. Teachers and other adults in the schools can prioritize skills development, systems of knowledge shared between subject matters, self-awareness, and critical/paradigmatic questioning. If teachers emphasize real education rather than behaving (standing in line with "bubbles and duck tails") then our education systems could return better dividends and outcomes for our learners. Wish I had an article I could refer to.

john hare writes:


An honest student of a subject can self evaluate to a degree you apparently consider unlikely. Putting a lot of effort into passing a test is not on the same level as loving to learn about a subject. From personal experience, a year or so of part time, but passionate, self study can put one on a decent footing with college grads in the limited field of interest. I consider the occasional finding of people in top management as having faked their degrees as evidence for this point.

It's probable that I would have been better off financially if I had claimed a degree to go with my knowledge in a couple of engineering fields. To the extent that one can read and fully comprehend, one can gain knowledge inexpensively.


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