February 07, 2006

Signalling & Alternatives to University

Here Bryan Caplan of Econlib, a supporter of the view that a degree is primarily for signalling desirable traits, discusses the value of a degree. Idea is, you’re valued as a graduate not so much for the knowledge you come away with but because sitting through lectures and jumping through exam/assignment hoops for three years implies you’re reasonably productive and capable of learning. That many of the firms we see on campus don’t require specific degrees suggests this is often true. What I liked was a suggestion by a later commenter

Start up a school that screens for IQ, and basically puts students through hell — difficult topics involving critical thinking, research, teamwork, and long hours, all without any grade inflation. It would be cheaper because you wouldn't necessarily need well-educated professors. That would be extremely powerful signaling. You might not even have to charge tuition — if you could run it cheaply enough.. Also, you might be able to pack four years' worth of standard signaling into two years, and people who only made it through one year would still prove something. If it failed, so does the signaling thesis.

Clearly needs refining, but the idea has some appeal. The assessment days (featuring tests, group exercises, presentations and interviews) used by large employers could be a model. University helps develop workplace skills, but for non-technical jobs I doubt the gain significant enough to warrant not considering an 18 or 19 year old, or that lessons wouldn’t be learned anyway, once in a pressured work environment.

There must be quicker ways of verifying the existence of certain traits in candidates / cheaper ways for candidates to convey their ability. That job prospects aren’t the sole concern of most people is deliberately ignored. Taking this into account together with subsidies to education, it’s understandable why such alternative schemes (run by independent firms or employers themselves) aren’t around.


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