Please Explain the Point about the Stigma

I think I understand social stigma, but what is Murray saying about it? That young people are going to college because they cannot bear the thought of being labeled “second class citizens” for being mere high school graduates? They are just searching for some sort of social status? And if they don’t get it, society “punishes them viciously”? How? Or is it the case that the quality of their social and professional networks is much worse, or that their marriage market prospects are less attractive?

I grant that I am not an American and I did not live in the U.S. for long. Perhaps that is why I need this better explained to me. I am happy to change my mind, and I can see that this could be important.

I understood Murray’s economic argument a bit better, although, as I said before, I think college does pay off for most people currently at the margin of going (although there are some unlucky ones). Furthermore, we can all sympathize with the argument that perhaps four years is too long. In the United Kingdom, the undergraduates I teach get out in three years, and they go on to do the same jobs as U.S. undergraduates, be it in the financial sector, in business consulting, marketing, or government. In fact, all of Europe has gone to a three-year degree. But I don’t see Murray’s argument as being about three vs. four, or two vs. three; it is about something more fundamental and extreme.

It has been hard for researchers to pin down what types of rewards really motivate people to enroll in college.  Financial rewards such as a higher salary? Promise of a pleasant four years? Access to a higher social class? People engage in all kinds of wasteful activities to get status. In fact, that’s the whole point of doing them — to distinguish yourself from those who don’t do them. Murray is saying that for many people, the BA is like that. It basically gives them little or no knowledge, especially if they major in a subject such as Russian Literature. But what is obvious to Murray is not obvious to me, and it doesn’t seem obvious to Carey either. I am happy to change my mind if I get more evidence.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s provocative lead essay, the American Enterprise Institute’s Charles Murray draws from his new book, Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality, to argue against America’s obsession with the four-year BA degree. Murray argues that the BA “wreaks harm on a majority of young people, is grotesquely inefficient as a source of information for employers, and is implicated in the emergence of a class-riven America.” Murray contends that vocational training and a new regime of certification testing would provide a superior alternative to a college degree for many high school grads.

Response Essays

  • Economist Pedro Carneiro of University College London — an authority on the relationship between education, human capital, and wages — agrees with much of Murray’s argument, but questions its relevance. Some people may be making a mistake in pursuing a BA, but it’s not a very big mistake, Carneiro says. “For most of those enrolling in college, a BA has a good expected return, but there is some risk,” and not notably more risk than with other investments. The real worry, Carneiro argues, is that stagnation in college enrollments “may cause problems for [economic] growth in the years to come.”

  • George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan agrees with Charles Murray’s claims that not everyone is suited to college, that four years is too long, and that few career-relevant skills are learned there. But then what explains the wage premium for college grads? Caplan notes that Murray flirts with a “signaling” model but argues he needs to take it more seriously. But then why haven’t certification test already caught on, Caplan wonders. Why don’t employers already cut out the college middle man and directly hire top high school grads? “An unfortunate implication of the signaling model is that cutting the BA down to size will be a lot harder than Murray thinks. As far as employers are concerned, the BA works.”

  • Kevin Carey, research and policy manager for Education Sector, argues that the “mass production of bachelor’s degrees” in the 20th century gave the United States one of the world’s best-educated labor forces, and all signs point to the stunning success of mass higher education. Carey says that Murray “does not come close” to showing that the “BA is the work of the devil.” If an alternative system of certification testing made sense, Carey argues, we would expect to see it already, but we don’t because “employers value the bachelor’s degree.” The flexibility of the American system, which allows students to get a good general education without committing to narrow vocational training, is one of its strengths. And so many drop out of college, Cary maintains, not because they are unprepared or unable to benefit, but because the academic environment and teaching are often discouragingly low. “The bachelor’s degree represents the best of American opportunity,” Carey writes. “We need to make it better, not tear it down.”