Educational Signaling

I recently finished Bryan Caplan’s “The Case Against Education” which is a rollercoaster of a book. Caplan basically makes two claims: education is much more effective at signaling worker productivity than imparting practical/employable skills, and as a result of this we should cut state and federal funding for it entirely.

It’s natural to approach these assertions with a healthy dose of skepticism. I’ll withhold judgment on the second claim for now, but I admit I am moved by his arguments for educational signaling. In short, he demonstrates we learn nothing in school beyond basic literacy and numeracy. Take science. Caplan supplies the following table with data from the General Social Survey and his own corrections for guessing. IMG_0057He has similar tables for basic political and historical knowledge. Clearly, we retain very little in the form of pure information.

What about the old adage that education is supposed to “teach you how to think”? Caplan has an answer for that as well. He cites studies demonstrating that the entirety of one’s undergraduate education increases general reasoning ability marginally, and only specific areas depending on the choice of major. “Learning transfer,” or the ability to apply principles learned in one situation to another, is also rare, especially when the initial principles were learned in a formal context. Self-reflection confirms this. How many times have you explicitly used information/a pattern of reasoning developed in class to solve a problem outside of a test?

In fact, my own decision to study philosophy, and expect employment post-graduation, presupposes a signaling theory of education. I do not plan on becoming a philosophy professor, but that is the only occupation where what I learn in class will be relevant. Nobody uses Kant on the job, and I knew that ex-ante. Instead, I have to rely on the fact choosing philosophy signals something about me that employers value. In Caplan’s terms, I’m hoping it demonstrates my ability, conscientiousness, and/or conformity, as these are the primary signals a college degree functions to send.

I’m a convert. Signaling explains why students cheer when class is canceled, but are reluctant to skip, why MOOCs can provide an objectively better educational experience than many brick and mortar institutions but pose no threat to the establishment, why STEM graduates do not work STEM jobs, and why the years of college that see the most payoff are graduation years. The personal and academic evidence for signaling is gigantic. Why ignore it?

The individual implications for this conclusion are Excellent Sheepy. Because your degree + extracurriculars are the only measurements employers have of your productivity, maximize those. Do the minimum amount of work for each class. Cheat on tests. Join as many clubs as possible and try to get a leadership position in each. You’re not going to remember course material, and it’s surely not going to be relevant to your job, so who cares? Even if you’re overcredentialed for your ability and turn out to be a poor employee, you’ll stick around as long as your incompetence isn’t egregious. Firms will keep a marginal employee for years to delay finding a replacement and upsetting other employees.

The societal implications are also gigantic. If education is just signaling, should there be less of it? (Yes, but I’m not a full Caplanian). If education is just signaling, should it not be a human right? If education is just signaling, should this be an indicator e-learning companies should create better, more informative credentials rather than trying to improve content delivery?


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