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Attack on the BA, Part 3

Posted on October 16th, 2008, by 1 Comment

Bryan Caplan has the next response to Murray, in a post titled Murray Needs a Model — How About Mine?


[Murray’s] going to need both important neglected facts and a clear story (or “model”) that explains them. 

Murray is already doing well on the “important neglected facts” front, boldly pointing out that:
1. Only a tiny minority of students want or are capable of getting a liberal education.
2. … “[F]our years is ridiculous. …
3. Although students acquire few job skills in college, employers pay them extra anyway… the connection between what they studied and what they need to know to do their job is virtually non-existent.

So far, Murray and I are on the same page. But when he tries to explain how useless studies translate into big bucks, his story gets fuzzy. On the one hand, he tells us that “The BA really does confer a wage premium on its average recipient, but there is no good reason that it should.” On the other hand, he insists that “Employers are not stupid.” How can both be true?…

If Murray can’t clarify his model, no one is going to take his facts seriously. Fortunately, I can help. Here’s what Murray should have said: “To a large extent, the BA is what economists call signaling. Individual students who go to college usually get a good deal; so do individual employers who pay a premium to educated workers. The problem is that this individually rational behavior is socially wasteful, because education is primarily about showing off, not acquiring job skills.”…

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. When they pay college grads more, they get their money’s worth…

If we want to get our wasteful education system back on track, though, we’ve got to make the BA less appealing. The most obvious route is to cut government spending for education. It’s just plain crazy for government to subsidize anyone who wants to signal that he’s smart and hard-working compared to other people. After all, no matter how big the subsidies are, only half of us can look better than average…

Once students (and their parents) started paying a larger share of their tuition, Murray’s dream world might stand a chance. Suppose, for example, that people really had to fork over $30,000 per year to attend college. In this environment, there would be a strong demand for certification tests, apprenticeships, and so on, because many high-quality workers wouldn’t go to college…

Up next, Kevin Carey.

  • capeman

    Wow, this guy Caplan sounds like a real loser. Associate professor, economics, George Mason, says school is a waste of time and money, he’s writing a book about that! He gets paid to write learned tracts about what a waste of time his work is! (Kind of sounds like he might be a friend of the Doc’s.)

    He wants to claim that college degrees are all about “signaling” to employers that one is smart and perhaps diligent.

    Maybe what the degree signals is the most obvious, that the student has learned something of marketable value. Murray and now this college professor just can’t force themselves to admit such an odious possibility.

    Otherwise, why not just hire Princeton students when they arrive in the Fall of their freshman year?