Closing Questions

Before this conversation ends, I’d like to press Charles Murray and Pedro Carneiro on signaling:

For Charles: In your view, why precisely does the market financially reward students for taking lots of classes that at best seem distantly related to job performance?  You don’t seem ready to sign on to my signaling story.  Do you have an alternative?  As I’ve said before, I agree with most of your conclusions.  It’s your model that leaves me wanting more.

For Pedro: Yes, I am familiar with Fabian Lange’s work on signaling.  But to deny the importance of signaling in education goes against decades of my first-hand experience.  When I mentally review my 21 years as a student, I just don’t see that many of my classes caused my marginal productivity to go up.  Foreign languages, history, physics, physical education… in my job, they rarely come up.

You could say that I have an unusual job.  I do — I’m an economics professor.  But that just reinforces my point.  Since a major part of my job is teaching the material I learned as a student, there is an unusually strong connection between what I learned in school and what I do in my job.  If I hadn’t become an academic, I probably wouldn’t be writing about the return to education and calling it “work.”

The other response I’ve heard to my skepticism about the practicality of education is that so-called “useless” subjects improve job performance by “teaching us how to think.”  But educational psychologists have been testing this hypothesis for over a century, under the heading of “transfer of learning.”  (See Haskell 2000 for a survey).  The punchline of this massive literature is that learning is highly specific; if there is such a thing as “learning how to think,” it occurs too rarely to see it in the most of the data. [1]

So my questions for Pedro are: If you mentally review your years as a student, can you honestly say that your typical class raised your marginal productivity?  If you adjust for the fact that you’re an academic, doesn’t the weakness of the connection between what you learned and what you do trouble you?


[1]  There is another major debate in this literature about whether we can improve education so that transfer of learning does occur.  But virtually no one in educational psychology claims that significant transfer of learning is occuring now.

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.”