My colleague recently posted a timely summary of the glut of articles about the worth of a college degree in which she makes particular reference to Daniel Leondhart, an economist who quite frankly thinks this whole issue is very simple. For Leondhart, college makes sense simply because graduates clearly earn more in the workplace than non-graduates. Leondhart’s view is relentless utilitarian; he even acknowledges that:
It’s theoretically conceivable that these trends have nothing to do with the actual education that college students receive. Perhaps graduates gain little or nothing from college that they didn’t already know — but the economy has been changing in ways that favor the kinds of people who enroll in college and make it through. In that case, the charts above would say nothing about the college.
What Leondhart does not explore, however, are the implications of having an education system in which the economic benefits conferred upon a graduate are in no way related to the actual quality of the education itself. Enter Bryan Caplan:
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.
This is the reason why a history major at Harvard can get a job at Goldman, while a history major at our own fair instutiton can… well… let’s not talk about it. Employers know what it takes to get into a top University and are willing to hire those graduates even if their hires learned nothing during the 4 years they spent at whatever fancy-shmancy institution they attended. Although, according to Caplan, the signaling model explains why college graduates earn more across the board, it is also a huge source of waste, both in terms of time and money.
So where do we go from here? We at the Lamp have always been fans of restoring a respect for knowledge (here and here), and since the point of college is presumably to educate, this topic deserves to be brought it in from the periphery. Amidst all of the rancor about progressive pedagogy and the need to make the classroom more egalitarian, a movement advocating a return to the classical education has slowly started to gain momentum. Most recently, Stanley Fish declared in his NYT oped that his classically oriented high-school education was the most valuable instruction he received. Critics might argue that a preference for classical, fact-based education is grounded in nostalgia, but such criticism does not impinge on its value. As my colleague argued in the post linked above:
… a student cannot begin to think critically until he has something to think about. To use a media metaphor, the ends-based classroom replaces the News section with the Opinions section – opinions are important, but a student who learns from opinions alone becomes nothing more than a parrot of other critical thinkers, unable to think on his own.
The persistent teleological tone of the education discussion has resulted in a disproportionate amount of time being spent on the question of “what should we teach,” often at the expense of the equally important query of “how should we teach.” Until the paradigm shifts we will continue to see meaningless metrics of progress like this one used in our very own state, for if increased graduation rates come at the expense of quality education, any “progress” we make will surely be hollow.