Bryan Caplan  

Roccia on The Case Against Education

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Johnny Roccia poses one of the hardest challenges to The Case Against Education I've encountered.  (Aside: The audiobook is now out!)  I see it as a special case of a more general issue: Given the high anonymity of modern societies, why isn't there vastly more lying?

Here's... Johnny.


Okay, so I just finished the book.  First off - incredible.  It went beyond even my very high expectations.  But I can gush later, and I'm sure you've heard enough of that by now anyway.

But I have to share a thought that doesn't seem to appear anywhere within those pages.  A factor that you may have considered, but would be incredibly hard to research, I'd imagine.

Lying. 

So let's say education is 80/20 signaling/capital.  And the capital share really only comes into play once you HAVE the job, since it's pretty hard to measure beforehand.  So signaling is the primary metric by which you GET a job.

So... how many people do you think lie about having a degree?

Anecdotally:  I know lots (a dozen+) adults who have long-standing, high-paying professional jobs that ostensibly "require" a degree.  Those people do not have college degrees.  They lied about that fact, got the job, and were perfectly capable of doing it so they kept it.  I also know several high-school dropouts who are of the "smart but rebellious" variety, in similar positions. 

My experience:  Very few employers actually *check* to see if you have a college degree.  NO ONE checks to see if you graduated high school.  Graduating high school, in particular, is so standard that it's just assumed, and therefore virtually no employer wastes the time/money/effort required to actually verify.  And for those people that I personally know, I'd have never realized they didn't graduate if they hadn't told me.  How would you even tell?  I've been out of high school for 17 years, so I don't have the mental means to grill someone on their experience.

If even 10% of people who claim to have a college degree are lying about it, how would that affect the numbers in your book?  That *hugely* pushes the validity of the signaling model, but it's got to be hard to research - how do you ask people if they're lying about their degree?

If you search in the news, you can always find a few cases where some high-profile person was "outed" from a prominent position because it was revealed they lied about their credentials.  (This seems absurd on the surface - if they've been doing the job for a decade, why does not having a degree suddenly disqualify them?  Of course, learning new facts regarding their overall level of honesty can make you not want to continue employing them, but their basic competence is unchanged.)  But those seem rare - and the result of some extenuating circumstances in each case.  As long as you stick to jobs you can actually do, you're usually fine. 

My advice to job-seeking friends:  If a job listing has "Bachelor's in Engineering Required," then you probably need one.  If it just says "Bachelor's degree required," then go ahead and apply anyway - after all, if a degree in ANY major is equally good, then the job isn't really looking for skills, just conformity and brains. 

You say degrees are helpful because it's hard to fake long-term conformity, but it's really easy - you just fake having the degree.

So what explains employers' lax enforcement of a signaling system they're so invested in?  Well, what if employers *ALREADY* recognize that education is mostly bunk, but Social Desirability Bias works on them, too?  An employer that loudly claims "We don't care about degrees!" looks weird, and then probably attracts only low-caliber applicants.  How do you get around this?  Say you require degrees, but then don't check!  That way, you get TWO classes of applicants - those with degrees, and those with the chutzpah to claim they do (and the confidence that they can do the job anyway!). 

From my own experience:  If I see a job I want that lists a degree as a requirement, I apply anyway.  My resume in my career field is impressive, despite the lack of degree.  I almost always get a callback, and get the job - the interviewer never even *asks* about my college.  So employers use it as a filter, but don't actually care about it.  Social Desirability Bias, with a covert workaround. 

Thoughts?




COMMENTS (18 to date)
Denver writes:

My guess is that people who don't have degrees simply don't know how much employers actually check for the credential, and thus assume that checking for the credential is more common than it actually is, so they don't apply for those positions.

Chris writes:

For what it's worth - I am personally aware of three cases where someone lied about their credentials and were subsequently fired.

Also, large and mid-sized companies routinely do background checks where degrees are part of discovery.

Dylan writes:

Not really relevant to the question of how prevalent this is, but one of my favorite books is an autobiography by a guy who grew up living with his father, who managed to lie his way into jobs like aeronautical engineer at Boeing despite not having any higher education or experience in the field.

Duke of Deception

(His brother is also a writer, and wrote his own story about growing up with his mother, This Boys Life, which is another great story)


michael pettengill writes:

Tens of millions of adults are high school dropouts.

Their job prospects are equal to or greater than college graduates in the aggregate???

LD Bottorff writes:

In my last semester of my Master's work, an instructor generated so many complaints that the university asked him to prove he had his advanced degree. He refused and was fired from the part-time position. When I applied to teach at the community college level, I was required to provide my graduate level transcript directly from the university (my copy of the transcript was not good enough). It seems that some people do attempt to lie about their education, and some employers have caught on.

Johnny Roccia writes:

@LD Bottorff

Academia seems to be the huge exception. For many (hopefully obvious) reasons, they care more about checking education credentials than the private sector.

Richard writes:

I've always wondered this about affirmative action and college admissions. Nobody is going to check your race, and basically anyone in the world can look "Hispanic" even if they did. So why doesn't everyone just claim it?

Alan Goldhammer writes:

While this is tangential to the argument about degrees, Robert Rubin had an interesting comment on the value of studying philosophy. He argues that it prepared him for his work at both Goldman and in government.

When I was interviewing candidates for jobs while working in the pharma industry, the degree qualification could be important depending on the job to be done. If we were looking for policy people, critical thinking was more important.

john hare writes:

I wish I had discussions like this available decades ago. I don't know if I could have justified lying about my credentials to myself, but I'm quite certain that I could have faked knowledge of several fields with a few months self study.

I've several times been to conferences where I found credentialed people relatively uninformed. To the point that I was often asked my professional opinion, which is a hoot to an elementary school dropout. '

Peter Gerdes writes:

If businesses were deliberately attempting to covertly recruit those willing to lie about their degrees they would more effectively signal that degrees would not be checked.

Or better yet simply SAY bachelor's degree required but still consider candidates who apply but don't list a degree or list a degree but no institution.

I suspect that just like voter fraud the cost for lying is simply too high for most people to risk it. In particular, most people very much value a degree of safety and certainty in their job and having lied about a qualification leaves a long term cloud over one's head. Moreover, if you are discovered once it becomes very likely that any future employers you might approach will learn of it if they check your prior employment.

Also can't you basically just buy a degree from non-accredited schools? Why wouldn't that be the preferred strategy?

BC writes:

"Given the high anonymity of modern societies, why isn't there vastly more lying?"

Maybe, a large society with high anonymity can only become "modern" if most people are honest. If they were dishonest, then perhaps the cost of overcoming distrust would be too high. Also, once modernized, there is less incentive to lie. Even the poor in wealthy countries are wealthy by global and historical standards. Why risk loss of reputation and, for the religious, eternal damnation if one can still have a decent life without lying?

Edan Maor writes:

I've been in layoff meetings (I'm in the tech sector), in which we're trying to decide who to lay off. And to my astonishment (and horror), some of the people were actually making the case to keep or fire people based on their degrees. This, despite the fact that all the people being considered had been at the company for multiple years, so we could gauge their proficiency by *their actual work*.

It still amazes me that people will replace actually looking at people's production, vs a many-years-old-at-that-stage learning/signaling experience.

(And worth noting, the people looking at the degree explicitly said "it tells you something about them that they got a degree". They could be thinking human capital in their mind, but I would definitely class this as signaling).

Mark Bahner writes:

A couple of comments:

Anecdotally: I know lots (a dozen+) adults who have long-standing, high-paying professional jobs that ostensibly "require" a degree. Those people do not have college degrees. They lied about that fact, got the job, and were perfectly capable of doing it so they kept it.

When I got my first (engineering) job, my employer required college transcripts. Those could be faked, but it would be pretty difficult.

My advice to job-seeking friends: If a job listing has "Bachelor's in Engineering Required," then you probably need one.

The various engineering specialties (Mechanical, Electrical, Chemical, Civil, etc.) have very different courses. It would be very interesting to see a job listing that required a "Bachelor's in Engineering" where someone who had, for example, a Bachelor's in Electrical Engineering would be acceptable for a position that involved mechanical engineering, or vice versa.

Thomas Sewell writes:

In technology, it's pretty standard to see "4-year degree or equivalent experience" as the requirement.

This is probably a combination of the self-taught nature of many jobs and that they tend to have a technical portion of the interview where the employer can better determine if an applicant can actually do the job or not.

A slight lack of qualified applicant supply as well as the more objective nature of the job skills probably also factor in.

Floccina writes:

I have pondered what Richard said above, why do so few white people claim to be black?

Mother used to say her Sicilian father said his ancestors came from people who migrated to Sicily from Egypt, making me likely some part African but it would too embarrassing if someone questioned my blackness (but it seems not too embarrassing for Elizabeth Warren, which might be why she is in congress and I am not.

Tom Davies writes:

Answers to this question document some punishments for lies https://workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/111648/lied-on-resume-about-obtaining-a-bachelor-degree/111737#111737

Richard writes:

@Floccina

Yes, we can take this as evidence that people will follow norms even when doing so brings a disadvantage and the probability of getting caught is zero. Maybe a lack of knowledge about the extent to which affirmative action matters plays a part.

Or, maybe, people lie all the time a la Elizabeth Warren, and a lot of people in positions of power who look white identify as minorities when they fill out paperwork.

Steve S writes:

Maybe this is because I work in engineering - but even for my most recent job change I was required to send a certified copy of my degree directly from my college. And this was after 10 years in the workforce and being personally recommended for the job by a past colleague.

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