Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Reasons we value a college degree (aside from the obvious)

One of the things I find concerning about the MOOC debate is how simplistic many of the views are, both of college classes in particular and of college education in general. (Here is another one of my concerns.)

Over at Stumbling and Mumbling, Chris Dillow does a good job helping with the latter, discussing the less obvious ways that degrees can pay dividends (not sure about the last one though).
Nevertheless,we should ask: what function would universities serve in an economy where demand for higher cognitive skills is declining? There are many possibilities:

- A signaling device. A degree tells prospective employers that its holder is intelligent, hard-working and moderately conventional - all attractive qualities.

- Network effects. University teaches you to associate with the sort of people who might have good jobs in future, and might give you the contacts to get such jobs later.

- A lottery ticket.A degree doesn't guarantee getting a good job. But without one, you have no chance.

- Flexibility. A graduate can stack shelves, and might be more attractive as a shelf-stacker than a non-graduate. Beaudry and colleagues decribe how the falling demand for graduates has caused graduates to displace non-graduates in less skilled jobs.

- Maturation & hidden unemployment. 21-year-olds are more employable than 18-year-olds, simply because they are three years less foolish. In this sense, university lets people pass time without showing up in the unemployment data.

- Consumption benefits. University is a less unpleasant way of spending three years than work. And it can provide a stock of consumption capital which improves the quality of our future leisure. By far the most important thing I learnt at Oxford was a love of Hank Williams and Leonard Cohen.
I suspect that signaling is the main reason why increasingly many jobs require college degrees though they don't seem to involve any skills we would normally associate with college. HR departments spend a great deal of their time and energy narrowing applicant pools down to a manageable size. Degree requirements are a simple and easy to implement filter.

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