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School is all about signaling, not skill-building (latimes.com)
315 points by kermittd 39 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 216 comments



In my view, school does not admit to a singular purpose, even if a number of people seem to achieve similar results from it. Instead, different students can pursue different strategies through school, and get different things out of it. Even if signaling is a benefit of school, it doesn't need to be the only benefit.

School is a complex system. Take it apart. Figure out how it works. Adapt the pieces to make it do something useful for you. In short, hack school. It shocks me that a site devoted to "Hacker" news hasn't guessed that school is begging to be hacked, and makes me wonder how many true hackers there actually are.

Of course one possible hack is to follow a path of least resistance and emerge after 4 years with nothing but "signaling." But it's not the only hack. Signaling in the absence of real education could be viewed as a pitfall of school, not its purpose. A dark pattern, if you will.

In another age, this message would have been expressed by elders to their children in some sort of patronizing way, such as: "What you get out of college depends on what you put into it." I've certainly told this to my kids, along with the somewhat more detailed explanation about hacking.

The coding interview is a clue. At its core is a question: "How did you hack school to your advantage?"

Can school be hack-proofed? Experience with complex systems suggests this might not be a good idea, as it can kill the good hacks along with the bad, or make even worse hacks emerge.


Well part of why I upvoted this is because it would have been useful information to me 15 years ago.

Certainly school can be used for any purpose (perhaps that's a truism). But the author's point also includes the fact that the market (and society) is largely indifferent to what you learn at school.

In order to "Hack" school we need to be real with ourselves about what the world after school looks like.

- I've never been asked GPA once (one data point)

- Most technical questions I get asked are basic and solvable with a hash map

- I've never been asked to write a proof as part of an interview

- My degrees (business/psychology) have never been useful in my career.

- Many many people have asked my wear I went to college, and I can tell they care about the name of the school first and foremost.

- Regardless of intellect, positions at the level director and above seem to be assigned very unpredictably (luck/politics/privilege?)


* I've rarely been asked about my GPA either, which is good because I sucked. On the other hand, A good GPA would have made some things I wanted to do easier.

* Most technical questions are basic because most "technical" jobs are very basic. However, there are people out there building operating systems kernels, secured software, and life-critical systems; I'm reasonably assured that you would have to demonstrate more than competence with a hash map.

* I too have never been asked to write a proof. But, thanks to my education, the techniques needed to write a proof are rather ingrained with how I understand writing code.

* I, too, ask people where they went to college, because if they went to the U. of Washington or Carnegie Mellon or someplace like that, I can't assume they'll know Kantian ethics but I can assume they'll have learned something; I can't make that assumption if they went to the U. of Phoenix, ITT Tech, or EPRI.

* Positions at the level of director do seem to be assigned by luck/politics/privilege. Positions at the level of internal medicine specialist, structural engineer, and the like tend not to be.


Maybe for the elite. But for middle class people like myself, I developed marketable skills, secured multiple internships, and found it easy to get a full-time job straight out of school. I had about a years worth of industry experience via internships (one for 6 months, two others 3 months each).

Signaling doesn't buy you much. At least in engineering, because a technical interview will sort out whether or not you actually demonstrate basic programming skills very quick.

Software Engineering is a notable exception, most other fields don't quiz as part of the job interview process: soft skills and credentials or state licenses or bar exams are relied upon more heavily. Maybe signaling matters more in these fields? Again, signaling is no measure of real skill.

Obviously, like most people I'm upset about the pay-to-play scheme but in reality very, very few people choose that option. 99.9%+ of applications are not pay-to-play, so we should still hold a good deal of faith in our higher education system. It is imperfect and has many issues, but this article title is broadly incorrect about the purpose of higher education today.

edit:

> Researchers consistently find that most of education’s payoff comes from graduation, from crossing the academic finish line. The last year of high school is worth more than the first three; the last year of college is worth more than double the first three. This is hard to explain if employers are paying for acquired skills; do schools really wait until senior year to impart useful training?

My first company that hired me out of college got a much better deal waiting for me to complete my senior year. Yes, each year isn't worth the same. This makes sense. Senior year was my capstone -- building valuable communication skills in a team environment. Year 1? I was finishing the basics of CS 101. Of course the last year is worth more than the first.

Would you pay 50% the price for a half-finished version of Microsoft Word? Probably not. It'd be far less useful of a piece of software.


Look at what you wrote "I developed marketable skills, secured multiple internships". That does not read like school did that for you and probably you could do the same without school. How much of that CS101 was studying on your own time?

Finishing school is signaling that you are person that shows up in the morning for classes and puts up years of his life to do that. By any means I am hiring developer who is signaling that he is reliable and comes to work every day vs someone who is inconsistent.


Would you go to a doctor that learned medicine form YouTube?

I think the problem here is a bias due to the fact that the employment after earning their computer science degree is for many people not about the science part of it but rather about fairly mundane programming and general office work.

Good luck arguing that chemistry, biology, mechanical engineering, medicine and many other fields that require specific tools and environments in order to actually study not to mention make any progress in the field are all about signaling.


Boy are you in for a surprise. Medical school lectures are mostly optional these days and are entirely skipped by a significant proportion of med students in favor of resources like Strong Medicine (literally a YouTube channel), gigantic Anki digital flashcard decks (see reddit.com/r/medicalschoolanki), UWorld, First Aid, Sketchy, Pathoma, etc. 'High Yield' is the buzzword for resources that are a better use of time. So yes, you almost certainly will trust a doctor someday who was educated at least in part by YouTube or comparable online resources. You just won't know it, since the paper on the wall will say "University of X". And as long as they pass the boards and make it through residency, does it matter?


> doctor someday who was educated at least in part by YouTube or comparable online resources

Emphasis mine.

No one cares if medical students avail themselves of digital resources to help them through medical school. Good for them.

Show me how many practicing doctors passed the boards and made it through residency after ONLY using Youtube channels and flash cards to self-educate.


It's a continuum.

Some people rely on the 'free' resources more than others. The real question is where is the cutoff percentage at. Say someone got 95% of what they know only from free resources and passed boards swimmingly. That sure don't look good on the med-school.

Say 95% of the entire class got 95% of the learning through Youtube/Anki and 95% of them passed boards. At such a percentage, med-school is all but useless to the general public that they serve. May as well get rid of them.

Granted, I don't think it's anywhere near that kind of level of dereliction that the med-schools are at (Cadaver Lab is an obvious counterpoint). But, where is the cut-off point for the schools and society? It's not 5% of the material being learned outside of them, that's fine I think. But if 95% is 'learned' outside the lectures, then yeah, that's a real bad sign.

It's a complicated question and the answer will likely be more complex and will evolve from class to class and year to year.


Say they sprouted wings and flew around. That would be pretty bad for the air travel industry.

Have you a real, physical example of someone who "got 95% of what they know only from free resources and passed boards swimmingly"?


As someone who went to medical school more than 20 years ago, it wasn't that much different other than people using "question banks" in order to help them pass the tests. There were plenty of prep books for preparing for the USMLE and board specific exams (for rotations in the third year).


The essential question is "why do we think that every skilled job requires a four-year college degree?". It would be a peculiar coincidence if the vast majority of jobs required exactly the same amount of academic education. Why do so many people go on to do work that has little or nothing to do with their major?

Here in the UK, a large proportion of healthcare is delivered by healthcare professionals other than doctors. If I go to my GP (family doctor) with a minor ailment, I'm likely to be treated by a Nurse Practitioner, who may have a Master's degree in nursing or may have never attended college at all. If I have a minor surgery, the surgery might be performed by a Surgical Care Practitioner working under the supervision of a consultant surgeon.

Lambda School have conclusively shown that it doesn't take four years to make someone into an employable software developer. How many other job skills could be taught through a short bootcamp programme, intensive vocational training or on-the-job training?


> The essential question is "why do we think that every skilled job requires a four-year college degree?".

That’s not accurate. Law school requires any degree followed by three years of a law degree. Now that’s pure signalling. Every other Anglophone country bar Canada has undergraduate law degrees instead of requiring what amount to two undergraduate degrees.


Isn't a law degree in the US considered a doctorate rather than a bachelors?

Medical degrees in the US are similar in that you complete an undergraduate degree before you can get into medical school and get a MD or DO. Some countries have the MBBS degree which is a bachelor level degree that can be started right after the equivalent of high school.


> Isn't a law degree in the US considered a doctorate rather than a bachelors?

A three year degree with plentiful coursework and no research component is not exactly a central example of a doctorate. M.D.s, D.D.S.s and J.D.s are called professional doctorates in the US and a second-entry bachelor’s degree in Canada.

> Medical degrees in the US are similar in that you complete an undergraduate degree before you can get into medical school and get a MD or DO. Some countries have the MBBS degree which is a bachelor level degree that can be started right after the equivalent of high school.

Some countries are everywhere apart from the US, Canada and former US colonies like the Philippines. Undergraduate medical education is the norm everywhere though postgraduate programmes are extending across the globe.


I don't live in UK by what I heard from people that are there was "GP was googling stuff, when I visited".

There is also other side of coin, doctors who are really experienced in some area are going to be expensive. There is also a lot of people who you can treat by googling stuff. Of course they should not take pills without second hand opinion, but not everyone needs brain surgery. If you get viral infection or bacterial infection you have to send stuff to lab, and lab returns results in readable way, so even GP (general practitioner) is not needed. Once I even got my blood tests and "GP" (my first contact doctor since I am not in UK) was like: "yeah I dunno, I usually get older folks with those specific problems so I cannot really help you". Boy that was nice, because you can go to some ass who thinks he has to know everything and that would be annoying.

Be humble, even as developer you don't get to know everything. Don't think doctors, mechanical engineers know all.


Because most high school graduates don't have the soft skills (or the hard skills) to work in a corporate environment.

I've worked with people with previous job experience that have gone through 10-week coding programs. And it shows. They might've been taught a framework or a language, but their computer science skills aren't nearly as developed. Some things take years to click, and growth occurs from years of writing bad code.


>I've worked with people with previous job experience that have gone through 10-week coding programs. And it shows.

Were they useless? Were they worse than useless? Or were they just not as good as a more experienced developer?

I'm not arguing that college has no value, but that it's bad value for money. If someone can become a useful-but-flawed developer after a short bootcamp, surely it's better for them to learn on the job while earning a living rather than mortgage their future on four years of education.

If college were free to the student and cheap for society, sure, send everyone and don't worry about it. That's not the case though - an entire generation have been saddled with vast, unmanageable levels of student debt. We need to be asking serious questions about how much and what kind of education is really necessary to produce skilled workers.


College doesn't teach those soft skills. Jobs and skill training teach those skills

You don't need college to write years of bad code. Internships or hobby projects do fine.


The credential signifies that you indeed spent years writing bad code, and got better. Maybe it does have value there. Many companies are weary of hiring someone who has a few years of self-taught experience.


Hobby projects don't do fine because there's no one to tell you what you're doing wrong. You need that to avoid reinforcing bad habits.


> Would you go to a doctor that learned medicine form YouTube?

Depends on my ailment. Most of the time people go to the doctor they are told to get some rest and maybe prescribed something. I don't think that needs 8 years of medical school. And doctor's don't even necessarily do a good job at prescriptions either, since they tend to over-prescribe in the US


they are told to get some rest and maybe prescribed something. I don't think that needs 8 years of medical school.

What takes 8 years of medical school is knowing when not to tell the patient that. When telling the patient to go home and rest could result in severe illness or death.


Except that it doesn't, because other countries see similar performance metrics with less overall training.

Nobody in charge is doing the "extra training increases costs by X which decreases availability by X which causes X damage vs lack of training causes X' damage" calculation -- everybody just argues for more training every time there's a problem, with the inevitable result of our stupendously expensive outlier of a medical system with middling measured performance and poor, ever-worsening accessibility.


>Would you go to a doctor that learned medicine form YouTube?

That's not a fair comparison. A better question would be: "Would you go to a Doctor that spent 9 years learning on the job or 9 years in school?"


I certainly wouldn’t want a doctor in their first 5 years of on-the-job training.


If they were overseen by another doctor with more experience it might be OK.

Besides I'd assume with this setup the future doctor wouldn't start with brain surgery. Maybe stitch up cuts and set broken bones, working up into more complicated scenarios.

I mean, I've always done my own minor doctoring anyway. And people did for a long time, it's only recently a long stint in college was required.

Granted this approach had variable levels of success, but the idea you have to have formal schooling to fix up any health problems I'm not sure I buy.


What was the infection rate in this “pre-schooling” period? We used to use leeches, blood-letting and cocaine medicinally, that doesn’t make them good ideas for today’s society.


We still use amphetamine to treat ADHD and leeches to help heal skin grafts. I believe that even cocaine is used in medicine today, but I'm not quite sure.


Yes. Why would learning through video scare you?


yes and no. I would go to a doctor that learned medicine from medical school but when faced with an unforeseen would turn to youtube if there was a way to help a patient. And this has been shown to happen on rare occasions when patients do something incredibly stupid and rare and the doctor has no idea what to do. But if they learned all their medicine from youtube, then no. Youtube should only cover 0.00001% learning materials


I would.


Note: I am not agreeing nor disagreeing with the article. I'm only clarifying what it's trying to say

The article is about the fact that school does not show that "developer ... is signaling that he is reliable and comes to work every day"

The whole point of the article is there is zero correlation between people who've graduated from college and people who haven't in term of how well they do on the job.

It sounds counter intuitive. There's like 3 situations

1. College trains you more than non-college

2. College doesn't train you but shows you're willing to stick things out more than people who didn't go

3. College does nothing what-so-ever (no difference in job performance from hiring people who did or didn't go to college)

The author of the article is claiming 100 years of research has shown it's #3. People will let you in the door because you have the paper (diploma) but they are fooling themselves that that paper has any meaning relative to hiring people without that paper

Here's another interview with the same author

http://www.econtalk.org/bryan-caplan-on-the-case-against-edu...

again, I am not agreeing nor disagreeing with the article. I'm only clarifying what it's trying to say

Let me add though, the author is claiming this is true in aggregate. Not for your personal anecdote.


> The whole point of the article is there is zero correlation between people who've graduated from college and people who haven't in term of how well they do on the job.

... among the population who have been hired to do the job. This is conditioning on the collider. The people without a degree who got in are a highly selected sample compared to all people without degrees. Anyone who used this to argue that a degree wasn’t a strong useful signal Wouk be making the same mistake as those trying to get rid of the GRE in graduate admissions because in the population admitted the GRE doesn’t predict anything. If it did that would show under or overweighting ofbthe signal it sends. Zero correlation shows it has been given appropriate weight.


> Anyone who used this to argue that a degree wasn’t a strong useful signal

Reread the title of the article.

The question is whether an individual would benefit from college even if everyone's college was enrollment/graduation status was kept secret from everyone, even classmates.


The same question would apply to pre-college education.


> The whole point of the article is there is zero correlation between people who've graduated from college and people who haven't in term of how well they do on the job.

This is not what the article says. It's saying employers hire graduates because they're better employees, but college mostly didn't make them better. This is closer to your option 2. (We are talking about the OP, the Caplan editorial, right?)

Caplan is saying college is mostly an expensive arms race. It has to be expensive (in students' time and attrition through boringness/difficulty, if nothing else) to be an effective signal. Subsidies in recent decades have made it even more expensive.


> Finishing school is signaling that you are person that shows up in the morning for classes

Not sure about others but I tried my damnedest not to take morning classes unless I absolutely had to -- most semesters I had nothing before 11am or noon. The flexible scheduling was one of my favorite things about college. I did take one 8AM class and thinking back I have no idea how I didn't completely bomb it -- I showed up pretty sparsely after the first week or two.


Honestly I think this line is total bunk. I'm quite sure hiring managers believe it to be true - many jobs that don't actually need you to have completed any degree to do the work still require one to get hired - but in my experience, people who haven't completed college are more likely to be willing to put in long hours, while those who have tend to expect/demand more time off. [Not that wanting time off is a bad thing, I just don't think it should be doled out based on whether your parents could afford to put you through school.]


More importantly, taking internships means you have some practice, not just theory. Not quite as green. It also signals you actually take some things seriously.


> Signaling doesn't buy you much. At least in engineering, because a technical interview will sort out whether or not you actually demonstrate basic programming skills very quick.

Doesn't everyone complain about how technical interviews only measure how well the candidate is prepared for technical interviews? With that in mind, I'd argue that the willingness to prepare for a technical interview has become just another signal. Also you go against your argument just after:

> My first company that hired me out of college got a much better deal waiting for me to complete my senior year. Yes, each year isn't worth the same. This makes sense. Senior year was my capstone -- building valuable communication skills in a team environment.

Firms can not measure soft skills accurately, so this returns right back into the value of the college degree as a signal. You get points for attending a school which provided a teamwork-oriented final course. It's your final grade that matters, not what you learned in that course. You might have developed better skills than the rest of the cohort, but it's meaningless if you didn't get a better grade then them. Everyone would rightfully assume that the others have better developed skills than you, because that's what the current system is able to measure.

One final unrelated point:

> Would you pay 50% the price for a half-finished version of Microsoft Word? Probably not. It'd be far less useful of a piece of software.

The utility of added features is diminishing. It'd be worth a lot more than half, or Microsoft would just keep on piling features and raise the price quadratically (or with some power above one).


"Doesn't everyone complain about how technical interviews only measure how well the candidate is prepared for technical interviews?"

Many do. I used to believe that was because they had never sat on the other side of the table and seen how many people were just trying to bluff their way through without the ability to do anything.

Now, I am much more bitterly cynical.


In my mind, I probably took this too literally. Suppose only half the keys you pressed actual put a letter into the document, etc. It'd be far less useful.

The 80-20 rule applies to software: 20% of the feature set is used 80% of the time. Mid-way through development, it's likely the 20% may not be complete. It was a poor analogy.


> Software Engineering is a notable exception, most other fields don't quiz as part of the job interview process: soft skills and credentials or state licenses or bar exams are relied upon more heavily. Maybe signaling matters more in these fields?

License and bar exams are more serious than people in technology are willing and ready to admit. They serve the role of quizzes because the "passing score" requires a baseline of knowledge that the quizzes attempt to establish. This isn't a matter of signaling so much as the effectiveness of the testing process. The fact that software companies cannot rely on these factors is a poor reflection of the industry.

Practically speaking, there's nothing stopping the JS foundation from developing a curriculum, standard test and credential.


The first issue is that JS has evolved every few years. For example, we went from callbacks to promises and now to async/await. Or look at how modules have evolved. Or the use of const and let vs. var.

The other issue is that there are layers of other skills that also evolve every few years.

So to create a "bar exam" for a front-end web engineer, for example, you would need a completely different version every two years or so.

But then probably a bigger problem is that software engineering requires certain types of problem solving and to get a realistic idea of problem solving abilities of a person at large enough scale problems you would need a huge investment into the testing infrastructure and varied content. You would need sophisticated programs to test the applicants programs. And people to review code. And those tests would quickly go out of date.

Then the other thing is that there is so much variation in the types of languages or frameworks or tools used, it is questionable whether it is meaningful to test on some lowest-common-denominator set of tools at all, if you could find enough agreement on such a thing (e.g. Angular vs React, React vs Vue).


Async/await is just syntactic sugar for Promises.

A CS bar exam should just assess fundamentals -- if you have a good CS base, and problem-solving skills, you will adapt with the times as technology changes. Then, it wouldn't need to be updated to include new ES6 functionality. Besides, someone who does back-end Java doesn't need to concern themselves with language change to JavaScript. That's another reason why such an exam should be generic.

I'm honestly surprised nobody has tried to make that a thing. It'd save companies so much in time and effort if they could just say "yup, this person has the credential".


Many people have.

Most of them were vendor specific and so sucked.

Others were too low-level and so were meaningless, or never had any buy-in from anyone. They sucked.

Finally, can you image the same crowd that complains about technical interviews responding to a bar exam? "I haven't ever had to write a binary tree in my 30-years of real-world experience! Why would I have to do it for your test?!" That would suck.


> secured multiple internships, and found it easy to get a full-time job straight out of school

you don't get those in any school. your school's signaling secured that.


If nobody from my school could do the job, those connections would dry up and the companies would higher and fill internship positions from elsewhere.


Yes, Software Engineering is a super special exception that does not apply anywhere else.


That's a valid opinion, but it doesn't address the question: do other fields lean more heavily on signaling than others?

Does going to a top 10 law school matter more than graduating from a Top 10 CS program?


Law it's really top-14, and it matters a lot. BigLaw recruits almost exclusively out of those schools, and law has a bimodal salary distribution where BigLaw pays $180K out of school while smaller law firms and small-town law practices typically pay just $45-65K.

Many other industries tend to recruit only out of top universities, and getting into them if you didn't go to one is basically impossible. Management consulting, investment banking, hedge funds, philanthropy, many managerial government positions. The way you get into these is through going to a school that places lots of people into those industries, and then work the network.


Sounds like tech to me - if you didn't see the other tech salary thread....

(at least the bimodal bit and ivy->faa[n]g route)

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19393688


"Does going to a top 10 law school matter more than graduating from a Top 10 CS program? "

I have both law and software engineering degrees and I can tell you without a doubt that yes, the school you graduate from matters much more in law.


Absolutely yes, without any doubt.


Assuming you are not being sarcastic, could you enumerate the main reasons as to why software engineering is super special?


I'm asuming he was sarcastic, but...

"Software engineering" doesn't have much to do with either software (it's mostly generic project management) or engineering (ask an engineer: vector calculus! statics, dynamics and thermodynamics!)


Yep, it is more like Yep or Nope, 1 or 0. ;)


“If a student wants to study at Princeton, he doesn’t really need to apply or pay tuition. He can simply show up and start taking classes. As a professor, I assure you that we make near-zero effort to stop unofficial education; indeed, the rare, earnestly curious student touches our hearts. At the end of four years at Princeton, though, the guerrilla student would lack one precious thing: a diploma. The fact that almost no one tries this route — saving hundreds of thousands of dollars along the way — is a strong sign that students understand the value of certification over actual learning“

Isn’t this how Steve Jobs treated college? And “Apple” was his “diploma”?


As an employer I would not care much if a new hire only had the skills of uni but not the diploma. But I’m lazy and there is no way I’m going to do what’s essentially 5 years worth of examination to ensure the candidate lives up to some self professed level of education. Especially not in a 100+ pile of applications from others who where vetted as they went by the university. It’s not “certification” over actual learning. It’s the fact that the companies need easy certainty of that actual learning or you’re going to the bottom of the pile of applications. If you don’t have a certificate but have other proof of skill that’s just as good. Dropped out of uni to build a company that managed to launch a product but later went under? Great, who cares about the diploma, you have proof of you ability.


Generally it doesn't matter as the hiring manager isn't going to see the application if the HR peon doesn't see the boxes they want checked.


If someone's really motivated, there's also enough online courses which give certificates (MITx style) to collect almost the whole uni curriculum. Even with paying for that certificate, it's way cheaper than uni.


Yes, but he might stick around and take and pass the Ph.D. qualifying exams and then be well on his way to a Princeton degree: At least at one time, the Princeton math department Web site stated that, IIRC, "students are expected to prepare for the qualifying exams on their own and that no courses are offered to prepare students for the qualifying exams. Courses are introductions to research by experts in their fields."

So, look at the qualifying exams, see what might study, and while attending classes attend the ones that can help with the exams.

In addition, might have available some profs to answer questions.

In addition, likely one way to impress Princeton or any university is to publish, and one way to start to do that is to attend research seminars and see what some of the open questions are, also notice what some of the profs and grad students are working on. So, this way get some guidance on what might attack as a research problem.

I got a good pure/applied math Ph.D. Well over 50% of what I needed and used for courses, the qualifying exams, and my research was what I'd studied independently after my 4 year college degree and start of grad school.

Then a grad course in optimization gave a good introduction to the Kuhn-Tucker condition, maybe say Karush-Kuhn-Tucker. After the course I saw a tricky question about the constraint qualifications, didn't see an answer in the library, so signed up for a 'reading course' to 'investigate' the question. Two weeks later I had a nice, clean solution, wrote it up, and was done with the course -- two weeks. Later I published. There I'd noticed that my work also answered a question stated but not solved in the famous Arrow, Hurwicz, Uzawa paper applying the KKTC to economics. I published in JOTA.

So, a 'walk in' student at Princeton might have been able to have done much the same. With such research and passing the qualifying exams they would be on the way to a Princeton Ph.D.


Many (Some?) schools operate that way---the first step in a PhD is a qualifying exam. Some students may be able to pass it immediately after their undergraduate studies, while others (most?) require some remediate studying---undergrad classes, I guess.

UT Austin, at the time I was there, used the other (and better, I think) method: breadth and depth graduate classes, typically more advanced versions of advanced undergrad classes. The breadth classes covered most of CS, while the depth classes were more introductions to specific areas of research.

Edit: Oral quals are just hazing, in my opinion.


On orals, I did some!!

Maybe the first was as a senior. I got Kelley, General Topology and once a week gave a lecture to a prof! One week a chapter, and the next some exercises! It was fun!

The next time was on a written qualifying exam: The exam had an error, and I wasted time trying to prove it! I asked for an oral. One guy tried to haze me, but the other profs were nice, and I walked out with a rare "High Pass".

The third time was for my oral defense of my Ph.D. dissertation.

I was out running, and when I got back my wife said I'd gotten a phone call from a prof, the Chair of the committee that was to approve my dissertation -- no pushover, the Chair and a majority of the committee had to be from outside my department. Well, the Chair called me. Still with sweat from running, on my back on the bed, I had the actual oral exam! He had a question about one paragraph, so I reworded it, had my word processing retype the thing, and he was happy.

Then the fourth oral exam was the dissertation defense -- it was for show since the real one had been over the phone. The Chair looked really serious and let me look really serious and good.

Maybe there was one more: I'd rushed ahead in freshman calculus and done the first year on my own. Then I asked to start on sophomore calculus and never take freshman calculus. So, the prof gave me in effect an oral exam on freshman calculus. He concluded I'd passed and let me in sophomore calculus. He did say that he couldn't give me course credit for freshman calculus, but fine with me -- I just wanted to get going, get on with calculus, and not repeat what I'd just studied well.


Princeton math (and other?) department specifically advertise that their research-only PhD program is unusual or unique.

https://www.math.princeton.edu/graduate

Generals/Quals require 1-2years of graduate level study, not remedial undergrad, if you look at the material covered and the syllabus and levels assigned to courses at various colleges. It just so happens that at a school like Princeton, 1st year PhD students have already taken graduate level classes in their field, or equivalent self study.


You don't get to do exams and that is massive difference. As a motivation and as a feedback too.


The just show up mentality exists, but those people are learning online or reading books. What’s the advantage of commuting to a live lecture?


Mainly the syllabus and being told what to ignore.


And a forced pace, to keep moving instead of disappearing down every passing rabbit-hole.


This is a big one. I sat in on a number of 400 level CS courses after I graduated, and a big factor was just having a scheduled place to be, and homework assignment due dates that forced the correct pace for learning. The pace also made it easy to start the work early, but not obsess if I hit a roadblock, since there was a lot of opportunity to ask questions leading up to the due date. I don’t think I’d have gotten through the same course work without the classroom lectures. Double bonus was the social aspect, talking to other students and regularly walking with the prof after class.


How did you stay motivated to finish the homework or projects to the same degree as if you were being graded? I feel like the one factor that changes the equation is that grading inherently motivates even those who want to learn for learnings sake - it forces you to move faster and study harder with time and grade challenges.

Do you feel like you learned the material to a level that you would have had it been graded for you??


I was one of those students who didn’t care about the grade except as a proxy for learning. I never understood why other students would try to argue with profs about test grades, when it was clear they list points because they misunderstood something. That said, the thing that kept me from getting C’s in courses I didn’t like was that I was motivated to do at least decent at the things I do.

For the classes I sat in on, the motivation was that I was interested in the topic. But the social aspect really helped. Even though I wasn’t enrolled, knowing I was going through the same pain helped. I’m not surprised that MOOCs havn’t taken off like people assumed they would. There is nothing like sitting near people to really feel like doing something.


I think that one of the under-rated aspects of having classmates is finding out how little they understand. From the professor it's easy to get an idea of what the perfect student would know, in week 5, but it's much more helpful to have some realistic benchmarks.

Besides, of course, getting to bounce ideas off each other, etc.


Interesting. I agree about the MOOCs. It takes a lot of willpower and even then, it just doesn’t feel the same. There’s something about being forced to show up and sit through two hours of intellectual rigor and at least try to understand as much as possible. I guess it’s the same reason people go to the library to study.

Btw did you ask the profs if you could take the exams , and did you? Were they willing to? They are usually a little averse to extra work lol.


How do you sit in on classes?

Do you actually just show up? Or do you have to audit the class and register, but for free?


I have just shown up and asked the prof if they minded, at the end of the first class.

The irritating thing nowadays is that sometimes materials are behind a wall on the university website.


As an aside, back in the good ol' days, students paid their instructors directly, out of pocket. You can damn well bet more than "near-zero" effort would be applied in that case.

Anyway, society spends a lot of effort supporting students, from scholarships and tax exemptions to the social beliefs that allow the random person to spend several years doing nothing apparently productive without censure. But all that only applies to students actually enrolled---non-guerrilla students. Guerrilla studenting, as it was in the past, would only be the province of the idly wealthy. That, I think, is why no one tries that route.


If people living in Princeton had, let's say, a high quality UBI for life, I think a TV ad campaign saying just this would pack their lecture halls

At which point Princeton would enforce their membership rules but that's another atory


I suspect this trick is already harder to pull off at a university in a big city, compared to one in a little college town.


One key thing this paragraph misses is the characterization of this sort of person. Imagine we have a person that would independently, without extrinsic reward or 'push', show up to classes completely of their own accord. And we must further assume that they would engage in all assignments and somehow try to regularly test their understanding - the feedback exams offer is crucial to demonstrating understanding. And we assume they're doing well on Princeton quality and standard of work, all completely independently.

How did this person do in high school? Given high school is orders of magnitude more trivial, we can assume they were likely at or near the top of their classes, and probably would have shown remarkable results in skill assessment exams. And with that sort of motivation he also probably would have been involved in immense extracurricular and other such events. This person would likely have been able to get into any university he ever wanted.

Top universities do provide a certainly better than average education, but their main strength has nothing to do with their quality of education. It's the quality of their student body - which turns success stories into a self fulfilling prophecy. Imagine you start an 'basketball school' and only accept people that are at least 6'6", highly athletic, can dunk from x feet, run 100 meters in y seconds, etc. Go figure -- you're going to 'produce' a disproportionately huge number of NBA quality players simply because your admittance is already heavily biased to individuals who are already headed in that direction.

The point of this is that none of this has anything to do with signaling, but it also has very little to do with the quality of education received. The value of an e.g. Princeton degree is that you're the sort of person that could get accepted into Princeton which would be comparable to the sort of person that could get admitted to 'Basketball U'. Regardless of what happens during those 4 years, you're already almost certainly going to be ahead of 99% of the rest of the population. The degree just works as 'proof of filtering'. E.g. even if our basketball university had a pretty bad education system, you'd still see NBA quality players emerging from it at a way way higher rate than the population of non-admitted individuals.


Adult learners are a demographic that could be highly motivated as you describe but often wouldn’t have any chance of getting in through the application process of an elite university. There are a lot of intelligent people out there who didn’t engage well with school when they were young for whatever reason but come to place a high value on education later in their lives.

I think this group is quite poorly served by our current system.


I disagree. I was able to get into one of the best graduate programs in my field a few years after a mediocre undergraduate record. This took some preparation, but it came down to finding other avenues to prove myself. The committee knows your undergrad record doesn't mean much if it was many years ago. "What else have you got?" they might ask. It takes some effort and creativity, but it can be done.

Adults with a newfound motivation are valuable and they know that. But just saying so isn't enough.


That's awesome that it worked out so well for you! It's not something that I've tried myself, just the impression that I have. I do wonder though if grad school admissions might be another story compared to undergrad, since they probably see a lot more older applicants with work experience and are possibly more used to adjusting their evaluations based on what the most recent/relevant signals are (just as businesses do when hiring).

But leaving during undergrad (or just never going to college) then excelling in self-learning and industry seems to put you in a much more awkward position when it comes to continuing onward with education. You are far beyond most undergrad-level courses, but in most cases you need that bachelor's degree to even be considered for grad-level programs--or at least I believe that's the case? You end up needing to waste years of your life and tons of money just to qualify for the courses that would actually teach you something new.

So perhaps the problem is as much that there just aren't compelling tracks offered to people who don't fit neatly into the lines as it is about admissions flexibility.


>The point of this is that none of this has anything to do with signaling, but it also has very little to do with the quality of education received. The value of an e.g. Princeton degree is that you're the sort of person that could get accepted into Princeton. [..] The degree just works as 'proof of filtering'.

That is precisely what signalling means. Top colleges pick only does who have signalled being over 99.99% of the population in things like intelligence, conformity and work ethics, then they filter out a bunch of them that never end up their degrees, and now their having their degree signals that you are a top 99.999% worker.


How long do you think their signalling value would last if they selected the same group of students, sent them to Aruba for four years, and then handed them diplomas?


That'd be a really interesting experiment.

I think the sort that get accepted to these programs also tend to be the sort that would consider just sitting on the beach sipping martinis to be something that'd rapidly become hell. It's just boring. So you'd have a group of ultra highly driven people with 4 years of undirected self study, but also access to pretty much all the knowledge they could ever want in the era of the internet.

It's really impossible to predict, but I do think the results would be interesting and not necessarily what you're implying. In today's era of assumption of education = skill, we often forget things like the Wright Brothers were a highschool grad and a highschool dropout -- yet they effectively invented aeronautical engineering with some skills they picked up operating a bicycle repair shop. There's some major dissonance between what we, collectively, ought be doing today - and what we actually are doing. I think it's a mixture of exponential leaps in entertainment and a general worsening in the condition of entrepreneurship (imagine how laws you'd be breaking by trying to fly your own homemade airplane now a days!) Your idea would at least certainly help combat the latter simply because that's all there'd be to do!


> The value of an e.g. Princeton degree is that you're the sort of person that could get accepted into Princeton

This doesn't explain why a dropout (or even just someone with an acceptance letter but who never joined) isn't worth as much in the labor market as someone who finished the degree.


Why not? Those things also tell me what sort of person you are. If you took away that extra information and only told me which job applicants got accepted to Princeton and which didn't, then it would still be useful signal on its own.


> The point of this is that none of this has anything to do with signaling, but it also has very little to do with the quality of education received.

Ability. You’re talking about ability. Caplan estimates that on average the return from education is ~70% signalling and ability, 30% changes in human capital if I remember right.


Does he break down signalling and ability?

Those two seem to me to be vastly different things.


Part of the advantage of a quality student body, to other students, is that classes can be more rigorous and move faster and farther.


That's silly. Of course you have a filter for those likely to succeed. So do all institutions in the same business of the same tier. Then, you compare them on what they did with that human capital. Some could do better than others.

Just because I build a cabinet out of good, knot-free straight boards doesn't mean the cabinet is all about the boards.


I got a coursera account and I believe that's good enough for a while for education. I will get a degree as a stamp when situation demands.


Lol this is absolutely false. You would 100% get ejected from a Princeton class room.


Only if you're disrupting class. You wouldn't be able to attend labs though or pass exams.


It would be cool if early school was like a video game tutorial, to help children see their place in the world at large, as well as humanity's place in the cosmos:

Welcome to Earth.

You are a human, and this is [country/city], in the year 2XXX.

We share this planet with many species, but we are the only ones we know that can talk and invent and build.

The light in the sky is a star, and there are other planets around it, but this is the only one we know that has life.

There are many other stars out there that you can see at night, and all of them have planets of their own, and maybe someday you will visit them.

You are in school so you can learn how to do what you want.

...and so on, while showing a montage of places, creatures and inventions. :)

History classes should focus on the inconveniences and uglinesses our species has plodded through ("We did not always have cars or phones or toilets.."), not just a droning journal of events.

Maybe some of you would be interested in creating a YouTube series like this? Perhaps like a Kurzgesagt [0] For Kids?

[0] https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCsXVk37bltHxD1rDPwtNM8Q


Crazy story: my son actually did what the author suggested, he talked his way into a free education at Princeton!!!

He audited all the classes he wanted to... no diploma, but what a great experience (and a great story....)

From the article:

Ponder this: If a student wants to study at Princeton, he doesn’t really need to apply or pay tuition. He can simply show up and start taking classes. As a professor, I assure you that we make near-zero effort to stop unofficial education; indeed, the rare, earnestly curious student touches our hearts. At the end of four years at Princeton, though, the guerrilla student would lack one precious thing: a diploma. The fact that almost no one tries this route — saving hundreds of thousands of dollars along the way — ....


...and? From a job market standpoint, does it help him? Does he "sell" it on his resume, in interviews? Is it valued? Did it help him competence/knowledge-wise?

From a personal standpoint, did it help/enrich him?


You definitely can't audit chemistry & engineering labs, architecture studio, geology field camp, etc. It seems that the more you can get the education by auditing, the more "signaling" the education is.


Not a US citizen, but AFAIK, a course includes lectures, office hours, assignments etc. How did he manage to fully understand the materials without all the resources that are provided only for registered students?


Also not a US citizen and I don't know how it works at Princeton, but in my experience, getting actionable feedback on assignments is rare. You may get told where your mistakes are, but not how you should have done it instead. Most of the value of assignments is in simply doing them; that forces you to review the necessary material.

As for office hours, I never went to any, but I assume that they're not going to check your student ID, just as they don't check before lectures.


At my UK uni (some time back) we had tutorials and "office hours". Tutorials would recap lecture material and have question/answer sessions, and set "homework" questions; and be optional. Office hours would give chance to talk with the professor, you just queued outside, or signed up for a time slot.

Tutorials were run by TAs recruited from the body of PhD students and so could be of mixed quality (my metaphysics tutor was better than the lecturer), but would at least have value in repitition.

Libraries were vital to me. As at the time were computer facilities (MathCAD, Maple, Excel, Fortran, etc.). For some of my courses there were laboratories (material science), and for Art History there were trips and a special picture library.

You could sit in the back of lectures back then, but I think they check your ID nowadays.


> Most of the value of assignments is in simply doing them; that forces you to review the necessary material.

Preach it. The same is true of past or specimen exam papers or textbook questions. Writing, like debating, exposes your own ignorance to you and allows you to remedy it.


As a student in the US, I got a ton of feedback on assignments.


Come on, have we really swung so far on the "game is rigged" and "college isn't what it used to be" pendulum that we're acting like college doesn't build useful skills. Before college I had never written a program in my life outside of my TI-83. Coming out of college I was able to secure a full time job at a highly respected software company. They didn't hire me because my program was great (it wasn't that great), but they hired me because I can code well, or at least I like to think so.


We’re in the minority. Most professions aren’t engineering. Or medicine.

Think of the average student graduating with a generic business degree. What actual skills does this person possess after 4 years of schooling?

This is why so many Fortune 500 companies have new grad trainee programs that they funnel people through. The fact is, most of these generic “business” jobs can be done by anyone with a few months of on the job learning.

How many project managers, marketing managers, account executives, sales people, HR professionals, tech support, etc. could’ve stepped into those same roles without spending 4 years at an extremely expensive party (as they would have 50 years ago)?


As somebody who doubled in business and psychology, you are on point. Undergrad degrees in those two are borderline useless, with the two most practical classes being statistics and accounting.

"Conjoined triangles of success" is a joke that is actually a very accurate representation of what it mocks.


Surprisingly few. New grad training programs still depend on the "grad" part.

It's not like Fortune 500 businesses are stupid. If they could hire random high school grads for all their jobs and pay them less, don't you think they would? As you point out, college degree requirements have not always existed, they were added. Chesterton's Fence is a useful mental guide here. People don't generally make things harder on themselves for no reason.


Many many jobs today that require a college degree used to require a high school diploma. Yes those require intelligence and studiousness in varying degrees, but these skills can be assessed by interviews and hiring people in entry level positions for 4 years (or less!), not making them sit through irrelet college classes.

Half of a US college degree curriculum (the liberal arts distribution) isn't part of the curriculum at all in the UK for a science degree; are those UK degrees producing useless employees?


This article is just a companion piece for the author's book, The Case Against Education [1]. I'm reading this book for philosophy class and one of my top questions going in was "what about the engineers?" Well, Caplan heads that off at the pass: his father was an engineer and he says repeatedly that vocational degrees like engineering and medicine are about more than signalling. His earnings data prove that point, too, because it shows that the arts degrees people people poke fun at the most, earn the least.

[1] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/36319077-the-case-agains...


I would also ask: "What about the musicians?" After all, music degrees are heavily vocational. But the music vocation itself is overcrowded unlike engineering or medicine.

The article cites as evidence the large disparity in value between three and four years of college. This is much more prevalent in engineering than in music. Taking three years of college music study, or learning it informally, will in fact prepare you for a music career. I know people who have done it.

In my view, the need to make special exceptions for certain college majors weakens the signaling hypothesis.

Disclaimer: One of my kids is a music major, and I earn part of my income as a musician.


Does he have anything to say about the difference between the engineering and engineering technology degrees?

(The only firm difference I know is that, if you have the latter, you need not apply to any NASA engineering job.)


I had a philosophy degree and taught myself to code as a teenager. I was able to secure a full time job with a highly respected software company upon graduation, and they didn’t give a fuck what degree I had as long as I had one and could code.

I learned a lot in college, but I definitely didn’t learn any direct job skills. I just went to a big state school with a respected CS program (that I was not enrolled in) which drew a lot of companies to our career fair. I think that kind of shows the multiple layers of signaling involved here...


The only outcome the article focuses on is employment. Collectively, we used to know that a well-educated populous led to a better society. This applies doubly so for a representative democracy, where making informed choices leads directly to better policy.

Training of the mind also allows the educated to penetrate deceptions, deliberately muddled claims, and contradictions. But that result seems so uncommon these days.


I strongly disagree. Elite colleges are all about signaling. But I don't doubt for a second that my CS degree taught me an enormous amount - some skill-building, lots of abstract thinking - that I wouldn't have been able to achieve as quickly as anywhere else.


Most colleges aren't elite. The vast majority of college graduates do not go to elite colleges. It's myopic to think of elite schools as "all schools" as so many articles do.

Seriously, rankings are so pointless. I personally value someone's skills, not what institution they obtained them from. I guess for our society's elite, it's their version of keeping up with Joneses. Or maybe the upper class feels the need for their kids to get elite credentials to compensate for a lack of any real skill. I don't know how motivated I'd be in life, if I didn't have to work to support myself. So in that sense, I do have some empathy for people in that position.


There are "elite schools". But there are also sub-par, "diploma mill" schools.

The majority of colleges are probably in the middle, doing their best to teach the majority of students. However, the institution does matter.


Okay but how about this: Say you actually dropped out of your degree one day before completing it. Skillwise you are almost the same but your compensation will take a drastic hit on average.


It's not a good inference from the employer's perspective that he is skillwise almost the same. The dropout happened for a reason, i.e. he was not on track to meet the degree requirements, which at least creates doubt about the underlying skill.


As someone who completed four years of college but did not receive my degree because of one unfulfilled requirement, this is true.

However, it is a temporary phenomenon. Within 5 years I was earning on par with my colleagues who had their diplomas, and today I manage and out-earn people with degrees.

I am absolutely certain that the skills and knowledge I gained in college were essential to my career. So if the question is whether college is useful minus the credential, count me as an enthusiastic yes.

The first job after college seems huge to young folks but it really does not matter in the long run. I can't think of a single person I know over 40 who is doing the same thing today that they did out of college. In some cases the job or industry did not even exist when they graduated.

College education gives you the opportunity to built a base foundation that will serve your whole life, which is (hopefully) long. Who knows what the world and jobs will look like 30 years from now.


What does it say about a person who makes such a catastrophically stupid and easily avoidable decision? Will they decide to treat your big launch day like their degree, and bug out the day before never to be seen again?

Yes, this is signaling, but really useful signaling. School can provide both signaling and skills.


Not if the employer is rational, and instead simply asks to see your transcripts. A list of courses completed (with grades) from a respected school is much more informative about someone's skills than a degree.

Credentialism is a poor surrogate for showing your work.


Yeah because how many people that are good enough to complete a degree drop out one day before completing it?


Having gone to 2 of the top 5 US CS programs, I would have likely learned more about CS as an autodidact vs learning from researchers, barely speaking English, dragged kicking and screaming into doing lectures they visibly couldn't care less about. It did give me direct access to FAANG though, which was convenient and I wouldn't have gotten from some random community college. It goes back to credentialing and signaling IMO.


Perhaps for you; not for my experience.

Also, you get as much as you put in. I’ve had plenty of awful professors but found ways to study in my own time, do my own projects and read papers on top of the curriculum I was learning. You can’t expect to passively receive the best possible education by top notch teachers, especially in research institutions.

Lastly, your first sentence neatly proves my point that elite/“top 2” programs are more about signaling and working for a FAANG. Not everyone judges the worth of their career by salary or proximity to a FAANG, and I would consider it extremely wasteful and sad if someone considered the biggest benefit of a top tier CS education to be landing a FAANG job.


> study in my own time, do my own projects and read papers

You mean, the stuff you can do without enrolling? Yeah, that's the point.


I've had plenty of awful professors, too, but some of the best I had were excellent researchers, both mid- or late career or just out of grad school themselves.

Not sure what that means.


I don't have an opinion on the benefits of schools and degrees, since I don't have one, but I am sure you could have gone work for FAANG after 4 years of autodidact learning and work experience, as well.


Came here to post this. I did my undergrad at an obscure state university with relatively low admissions standards. I learned a shitload. Could I have done that on my own? In theory, yes. In practice, I’d already been doing that throughout high school and, while that gave me a good foundation with the basics for college and let me skip past the Programming 101 stuff, it never came anywhere close to the rigor and focus I got in a formal setting.

People seem to forget that the vast majority of college grads didn’t go to an Ivy League school.


It's completely possible to acquire CS skills in much less time elsewhere.


Article was fine until this:

  These behaviors make perfect sense if — and only if — 
  employers are eager to detect workers who dutifully 
  confirm to social expectations. In a society where 
  parents, teachers and peers glorify graduation, failing
  classes and dropping out are deviant acts.
This is a misunderstanding. Employers pay attention to qualifications, e.g. on a CV, as an informational shortcut. If you don't get the qualification, then you are pooling with everyone else who didn't - including nonconformists, but also the incompetent and lazy. If you get the qualification, even only just, then you are in the category with everyone else who did, including brilliant top achievers.

Maybe employers do care about social conformity, maybe even overwhelmingly so - but this evidence doesn't show that. Looks like a journalist misreading the academic literature.


The author is an econ professor at George Mason.


The author has a book on the subject and is one of the main proponents of signalling in education :D


Weirdly, when I was leaving for college, I was warned that spending any time at a big school like UT Austin would end up making me a deviant. There was talk about someone's cousin who came back from Austin wearing leather and with a nose ring. Lesbianism was a possibility.

Certainly, nobody thought college was for those who conform to social expectations.

Not at all sure if I came out deviant or just crazy.


Social expectations vary by social class. The low education religious people you describe are a different social class from educated business and technical professionals


"Social expectations vary by social class. The low education religious people you describe are a different social class from educated business and technical professionals"

Technically, I can't argue with the "religious" description, since I attended the one cousin's ordination as a Catholic priest a couple of years ago, but prior to that he was a Navy submarine nuke and an NRC inspector. His brother is an engineer with the USACE. And their father was an engineer. And I've known countless "business and technical professionals" less educated than their mother, a Latin teacher.

You may want to consider leaving your bigotry at home.


I agree. Employers don't care about people "dutifully conforming to social expectations". They are that a) people can do the job, and b) they aren't super weird and annoying to work with.


In an ideal world, school is great. But, in a real world, it monopolizes knowledge and makes a huge propaganda that it is the only way to learn. We have been doing this propaganda for decades.

Then, parents, who don't know any better, think that they need to send their kids to colleges at all cost. They don't even care much about which college or which subject it is. Then, some business capitalizes on that by making a low-quality college. Then, we have this strange issue with student's debt where the student is not really hireable.

I talked to my colleagues at Google anonymously through Blind. And a few, even at Google, said (and many agreed) that either they took the student loan or they became a drug dealer (or something equally bad). I was quite surprised that even googlers would hold this kind of views.

I agree though that being $xx,xxx in debt is better than being a drug dealer. But, in my opinion, those cannot possibly be the only two choices. I didn't grow up in US, so maybe I don't understand the situation here.


Just like in startups, you get what you measure. In school, you measure by grades, so you get students who play the rules to get good grades.

Also see Goodhart's Law: "When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure."[0]

[0]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goodhart%27s_law


Because this is Hacker News, let's stick with technology: have none of you guys ever experienced the power gap? Seriously?

I went to a decent school, not great but pretty well known. I had friends who went to community colleges and transferred to a school like mine, and friends who went to Ivy League schools. Our senior year, the Ivy guys were writing their own toy operating systems and compilers, and I was reading shitty PowerPoints about how one might do that. The lower tier group? I was still helping them with their homework, which was basically sorting algorithms. One of them barely understood classes, and one of them was still struggling with properly constructing for loops after years of education. All of us paid absurd amounts of money to be where we were.

The Ivy guys were also well-off and came from good homes; that just means that money begets power begets money, not that their degrees were worthless paper. It makes sense that a professor of economics would write tripe like this, maybe it applies in his field but not here.


I've had this conversation with a coworker who was frustrated that people with wealth could leverage that wealth to create more opportunities for themselves. My response is essentially: "isn't that what you want to do for yourself?" He seems to think it is more fair if someone with less wealth got access to those opportunities, instead of the people with wealth. How is that more fair? Why does it matter who gets the opportunities, as long as they're going to people with a low risk of wasting them?


I agree with you 100%, the point was that degrees are not worthless, not that the system is inherently unfair.


> Researchers consistently find that most of education’s payoff comes from graduation, from crossing the academic finish line.

Not even. Just being able to show that you "went" to Harvard is a powerful enough of a signal. You can join, drop out immediately after, start a startup, fail, an then likely end up somewhere really prestigious anyway.


Yes, but Harvard etc is super special snowflake exception.


My point is that signaling works without any sort of coursework. The instant you make it into Stanford, you're a Stanford kid, which puts you into an elite group of desirable employees.

And of course these colleges are special snowflakes, they wouldn't be signals otherwise. Nobody cares if you went to a community college down the street, it associates no household name with you.


No, community college diploma is a strong signal compared to no diploma. You seem too preoccupied by concerns of top few percent.


Sure, I suppose you're right. I'm mentioning these top colleges because we're on HN, which is heavily oriented around the Bay Area tech ecosystem, which loves to dip into that pool.


I agree. Most of discussion is irrelevant to most HN people.


Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson's study showed that, if teachers were led to expect enhanced performance from children, then the children's performance was enhanced.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pygmalion_effect


Technologies like online education would crush the existing education system if the playground is fair. Unfortunately the latter has public funding in it and prevents the society from moving forward.


Except online education is dominated by the existing players, and they are charging the same kind of money you would pay in person. If you're getting a STEM degree especially, Coursera will charge you something like $600/credit.

This is because of, wait for it, signaling. You don't actually need all that much education to be an entry level software engineer, especially outside silicon valley. But you do need those letters after your name.


Georgia Tech On Campus M.Sc. CS $40,000

Georgia Tech Online M.Sc. CS $8,000


Also the main students have very little say in this.


I think the article seriously underestimated the effort to make it through a thre year degree at an elite college - let's say an MIT mechanical engineering degree - my understanding it is 80 hour weeks, with yearly inflection points where the faculty will try and eliminate the bottom 10% or so. get a first or 2.1 there and you are not signalling attendance but genuine effort. (Any alumni able to comment? )

There are signals and signals and disparaging an entire school is ... unfair.


I went to Stanford for Computer Science, and from my friends who went to Ohio State, equivalent courses sound significantly harder there to me - not much grade inflation, larger amounts of work. It’s anecdotal but I think the primary difference is the power of the network you interact with - which feeds a virtuous cycle of ambition and drive, given how empowering having that network is. Not the difficulty or rigor of coursework, except in marginal ways (for instance, d.school was nascent in popularity when I was at Stanford, so I suppose I got a sneak peek into design thinking before it got more popular elsewhere) but that’s not a dependable advantage of elite schools IMO and I probably would have run into the concepts in industry either way.


Ohio State is a fairly well respected CS program. (And I'm not just saying that because one of my advisor's more successful students is on the faculty.)

https://www.usnews.com/best-graduate-schools/top-science-sch...

US News puts them at #30, but that's really the 13th group---there's a lot of ties.

I think I disagree with that list though---there's many schools higher in the list that I've never read a paper from. They can't be good.

(UT Austin has dropped to 10th!! I think I want my money back.)


At MIT you can get a degree relatively easily if you make that your goal, but most people don't. I have respect for MIT grads because more often than not that means you have intelligence and work ethic. I've seen very smart people fail to graduate because their work ethic wasn't good enough (I don't think I ever met anyone there that wasn't smart) so having a diploma definitely means more than just attending.


The only élite university in the US with a significant drop out rate is Cal Tech. I’m sure there are lots of people who went to MIT who graduate with a softer degree than they expected to get going in but drop out rates at the tip top are low. At top graduate schools they birder on non-existent. Most years no one drops out of Yale Law School.


School has been undermined in some cases to be a signaling thing because it’s the last legal way to discriminate at scale, especially in lower rigor subjects.


>> Bryan Caplan is professor of economics at George Mason University and author of “The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money.”

Here I was thinking this was an article that genuinely sought to engage my opinion, when in truth it was only an advert for someone's book.

I think I'll make it a habit from now on to scroll all the way to the bottom of opinion articles to save myself some time.


Trying to engage people's opinion is generally an advert for someone's ideas.


There are some things very wrong with the American education system, but I suspect a focus on "signalling" and a desire for job training over general education is going to miss all of the important ones.

In the first place, the concern only with reading, writing, and 'rithmatic along with standardized testing are probably destroying most of the value of the public education system. Thanks, everyone. Good job.

Secondly, the belief that any bachelor's degree is as good as any other, along with the corresponding rise of for-profit educational institutions (along with not-for-profit ones which behave like for-profit institutions) leads directly to this whole signalling flap.

A degree from Joe's Diploma Mill is a bad signalling indicator because the education Joe provides is crap. A degree from Stanford is a good signal because Stanford provides a good education. Don't go to Joe's; it's a waste of money and time.

Back at UT, many students and the occasional visiting job recruiter complained that the classes didn't cover "job-relevant" skills. (x86 assembler, anyone?) On the other hand, those same recruiters kept coming back, and showering money on recent grads; something they notably didn't do at, say, ITT Tech or DeVry, in spite of the fact that those schools taught nothing but "job-related skills."

Sure, a degree from Stanford is a signal that you are smart and hard-working. That's because Stanford is hard to get a degree from unless you are smart and hard-working. Some of that is simply jumping-through-hoops-ism, but most of it is because Stanford requires you to learn hard shit. And that's why smart and hard-working students go there.

(End of part 3; see part 2: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19409381)


(I'm going to break up my initial response to this article into several pieces, because if I don't, everyone will read the first sentence, down vote it, and ignore the rest. Plus, it gives everyone an opportunity to downvote me several times. :-))

Is it ironic that this was written by Bryan Caplan, Ph.D., a professor[1] of Economics[2] at George Mason University?

[1] I'm getting a certain amusement from the image of Prof. Caplan, at a meeting of the current Economics faculty discussing prospective faculty candidates, voting against all the U. of Chicago grads in favor of Earl, who has a GED and audited a few economics classes.

[2] Economics? Really? The most signally of the signaling degrees. The field which, aside from its ability to demonstrate rightthink, is worthless outside academia and politics, not least because of its long history of disconnection with reality.

(End part 1: mockery.)


My understanding is that of all schools of economics, the Chicago school is the least disconnected from reality, in that it rightly recognizes its own "dismal" science as a social science first.


The article gives the impression that he is a professor at Princeton but he is not. He is a professor at George Mason University.

The picture caption is "Princeton" and this paragraph is what had me thinking that:

> If a student wants to study at Princeton, he doesn’t really need to apply or pay tuition. He can simply show up and start taking classes. As a professor, I assure you that we make near-zero effort to stop unofficial education; indeed, the rare, earnestly curious student touches our hearts. At the end of four years at Princeton,


He got his PhD from Princeton though. That's probably why he mentions Princeton as his example.


It's super ironic that he would use the sleigh of hand in his writing in that way. Sure at the end it's disclosed that he is not (currently) teaching at Princeton.


Author is in one of my favorite EconTalk podcast episodes: "Bryan Caplan on the Case Against Education"

Probably similar content covered, but it's a good discussion. And he covers some of the points I see people trying to argue in the comments here.

[0] http://www.econtalk.org/bryan-caplan-on-the-case-against-edu...


Does anyone else feel like college is mostly about class gate-keeping? I am not saying education isn't important.

In these digital times is paying $100k+ really necessary to get the skills you need for a good career? or is it more about separating the haves from the have nots using a very expensive piece of paper?


All these anti-education articles are pretty tedious. If you believe it's the schools who have it all wrong by teaching subjects that aren't useful for building phone apps, you're probably already pretty set in your worldview.


The article clearly is pro education. It shows that the system is less so. Example quote:

> Almost everyone pays lip service to the glories of education, but actions speak louder than words. Ponder this: If a student wants to study at Princeton, he doesn’t really need to apply or pay tuition. He can simply show up and start taking classes. As a professor, I assure you that we make near-zero effort to stop unofficial education; indeed, the rare, earnestly curious student touches our hearts. At the end of four years at Princeton, though, the guerrilla student would lack one precious thing: a diploma. The fact that almost no one tries this route — saving hundreds of thousands of dollars along the way — is a strong sign that students understand the value of certification over actual learning.

> You can see the same priorities when students pick their classes. Students notoriously seek out “easy A’s” — professors who give high grades in exchange for little work.

Also, some comments here somehow manage to read into the article that it claims that you don't learn anything. Even just the quote above shows the opposite when the author describes the difference between going to Princeton lectures for free or for a piece of paper. From the second quoted paragraph, which is as testable statement, it seems that in practice education is not the main priority - and I don't see how one could interpret the article in a way that he supports that. It clearly is a criticism of those sad facts.

The author clearly shows what he would like even in just this single sentence alone:

> indeed, the rare, earnestly curious student touches our hearts


You mean anti-schooling. Education is much more than schooling.

Formal education is classroom-based, provided by trained teachers. Informal education happens outside the classroom, in after-school programs, community-based organizations, museums, libraries, or at home. http://enhancinged.wgbh.org/started/what/formal.html

In other words, if I'm reading at home, undergoing on the job training, even picking people's pockets, I'm getting educated.


Has anyone seen a framework for companies to screen emotional skills such as resilience, drive and internal motivations for candidates and have done it well?


The voight kompff test is still in beta. People change over time and have complex motives which change in different environments. For instance, I know I work harder when my coworkers are more personally friendly, but generally despise work-related social events.


McKinsey tests for something like this through a structured probing of past actions. I always felt we did a reasonably good job of discovering evidence of such skills.


Or both you know, that’s also an option.


Education = Teaching + Coaching


It's an arms race tainting a lot more than education. Hopefully we can UBI + healthcare a détente.


There's a long history behind education, types of it, and the reasons, rationales, and interests behind these. One of the better synopses of these I've found is Wes Cecil's "Myths of the Modern American Mind: Education" (61 minutes, audio only):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CFiiOm6fB3c

He traces the history back to Babylonia and scribal training, Plato's Academy, Aristotle's Lyceum, medieval education, scholaticism and the rise of the Seven Liberal Arts with their Trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and Quadrivium (Maths, Geometry, Music (or harmony) and Astronomy), the emergence of the modern physical and social sciences, and the Prussian Educational System which is the foundation of contemporary Western education.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberal_arts_education

Throughout virtually all of this there's been a sharp division between intellectual and technical education. The liberal arts were distinguished from the technical arts, also called Artes Mechanicae (mechanical arts), servile arts, or vulgar arts, originally: tailoring and weaving, agriculture, architecture and masonry, warfare and hunting, trade, cooking, and blacksmithing and metalurgy.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artes_Mechanicae

Since 1800 or so, the distinctions have largely been between pure skills, including trade, vocational, and technical skills (including STEM), professional training (law, medicine, military, religion, and general administration), and humanities or liberal arts. The relative prestige of these has shifted fairly markedly over this period, as well as the increased specialisation within academic curricula and programmes, with the University of Virginia offering eight fields of study in 1825, and Johns Hopkins University using the term "major" for the first time in 1877. The emergence of technical schools, such as M.I.T. (1861) with specialised courses of study helped drive this transformation.

Cecil's treatment is on the light side, but engaging.

John Stuart Mill's observations on the indoctrinational role of education are also interesting. As others have said, schools play multiple roles.

https://old.reddit.com/r/dredmorbius/comments/6x7u6a/on_the_...

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00346760110081599


I don't really want to dig into the details of the arguments for the value of a "generalized, liberal arts education" here, mostly because I need to do some research on those arguments before evaluating them.

But, on the other hand, I really do believe that an education in ye olde trivium (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trivium), quadrivium (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quadrivium), and a number of other areas are important for the citizens of a modern, democratic republic, quite aside from how "Literacy and numeracy are vital, but few of us use history, poetry, higher mathematics or foreign languages after graduation."

I see this education as important on at least two levels. First, to fight the natural human tendency to assume that everyone else is like us (and that anyone who is different is deviant): we're all programmers here, right? And anyone who doesn't think in discrete, logical steps, is the bizarre alien them, right?

More seriously, I had to take Texas government and history classes in college, the requirement for which (a history professor informed us with glee) came out of a number of soldiers from Texas who were captured during the Korean War and who decided to stay in China after the war. (Honestly, I have no idea how those things fit together.) But those classes and others like them, while not directly benefiting me as a computer programmer, did provide some background and common ground between me and a huge number of other people who would otherwise have nothing in common with me.

Secondly, to fight the natural tendency for someone who is well skilled in a certain field to assume that field is all that exists. (You should recognize this from this very forum, where people suggest technological fixes for problems which are not technological in nature. And yes, there are problems which are not technological nature.)

As for the wisdom of the students, choosing easy classes and complaining about those on topics they'll never use in real life? I took Spanish as a foreign language which I never really learned and promptly forgot, took four semesters to get through two semesters of calculus (badly; all my math be discrete), and those damn semesters of government and history. Guess what? None of those things were useful to me in my subsequent career. Nope, not even calculus, that horrid waste of time and grade points.

On the other hand, I regard my lack of knowledge as a bad thing. A usable foreign language would have been nice. Other programmers do use calculus; I just had to avoid those jobs.

So, yeah, I pretty much disagree with everything in this article.

(End of part 2. See part 1: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19409228)


"You study arcane subjects year after year, knowing you’ll never use most of what you learned after graduation"

Well, that wasn't true for me, and I'm pretty sure for those in engineering or science, it isn't, but even the history, philosophy, and economics courses I took I recall and use. Even Steve Jobs, who merely audited a class on calligraphy, took a great value from it.

The fundamental flaw of Capland argument, who seems to be pushing this theme for years, is to view education purely in terms of economic benefit. It could simultaneously be true that the vast majority of your salary comes from signalling, but it could also be true that you gained great value from your education. Not everyone who gets an advanced education tries to maximize salary.

Capland's analysis, for example, would completely ignore the value of someone who chose to become a teacher or open source contributor.

Also, by induction, you could apply his argument to high school. Do we have evidence during the industrial revolution where blue collar factory work started to require more than an 8th grade education, that it made any difference besides signalling on salary?

Or, if you look at developing economies, where people often experience significant increases in wages as they move up the industrial ladder, sometimes without even full literacy, but merely from on the job experience. Should we assume education isn't worthwhile if you can't show a correlation between education and wages other than signalling?

One of the frustrating things about these kinds of economic analyses is that they narrowing look at only a sliver of what it is to be a human being, or the potential positive market externalities by having educated population. If we just measure the overall social improvements from the education of women, not in terms of individual wage performance, but in terms of overall health of society itself, it can't be reduced to a micro-analysis.

As a side note, I've seen Bryan's work forwarded within libertarian and right wing forums, in large part, to justify arguments to defund and dismantle support for college, both from a cultural aspect (Colleges seen as liberal/left institutions) but also from a notion that they don't want the government funding it. The fact that he's funded by the Cato Institute raises my suspicion that there's a political angle involved.

Even if you could argue college is not producing economic gains, but merely a signal, one has to look at a future where structural unemployment from automation may make a lot of work unneccessary, period. Do we eliminate education when work is no longer a necessity? Or could it be, that it might be better if people have a lifelong opportunity for intellectual enlightenment, it might be cheaper than funding prisons to house them, or falling back to religious institutions to give humans something to do that has meaning besides straight up consumption.


Background on GMU's economics dept funding, where this guy is faculty: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/05/us/koch-donors-george-mas...


> "You study arcane subjects year after year, knowing you’ll never use most of what you learned after graduation" Well, that wasn't true for me, and I'm pretty sure for those in engineering or science, it isn't, but even the history, philosophy, and economics courses I took I recall and use. Even Steve Jobs, who merely audited a class on calligraphy, took a great value from it.

The average graduate of a major in a foreign language can’t speak it at a professional level. Given that I think we can at least say the average person’s high school foreign language study is totally wasted. The average US citizen doesn’t know each state has two Senators. People who retain knowledge that they were not originally interested in and use regularly are abnormal, nerds. Most people retain astonishingly little. I know someone with a Geography degree who couldn’t identify the major rivers and mountain ranges of Europe on an unlabelled map.

> The fundamental flaw of Capland argument, who seems to be pushing this theme for years, is to view education purely in terms of economic benefit. It could simultaneously be true that the vast majority of your salary comes from signalling, but it could also be true that you gained great value from your education. Not everyone who gets an advanced education tries to maximize salary.

That’s not his argument. His argument isn’t just that education is in large part wasteful signalling. It’s also unpleasant. Most people care as little for literature as I do for American football. Forcing them to learn about it leads to no lasting knowledge or appreciation and makes their lives actively worse.

> Also, by induction, you could apply his argument to high school. Do we have evidence during the industrial revolution where blue collar factory work started to require more than an 8th grade education, that it made any difference besides signalling on salary?

Average education levels in England went down during the Industrial Revolution, not up, as manual labour became less skilled.

>Or, if you look at developing economies, where people often experience significant increases in wages as they move up the industrial ladder, sometimes without even full literacy, but merely from on the job experience.

Yes, we can see that education is over supplied on a strictly economic basis if we look at China, which grew richer much, much faster than it grew educated once Deng opened it up, or if we compare changes in education levels with changes in economic growth rates. No relationship.

> Should we assume education isn't worthwhile if you can't show a correlation between education and wages other than signalling?

No, education is pleasant for some, just as spending time with friends is, or smoking. But we shouldn’t subsidise smoking and make non-smokers pay.

> One of the frustrating things about these kinds of economic analyses is that they narrowing look at only a sliver of what it is to be a human being, or the potential positive market externalities by having educated population.

If there are externalities the government should subsidise education. It does, to an extent far above any plausible positive externalities. The credentialism this makes possible is a massive negative externality.

> If we just measure the overall social improvements from the education of women, not in terms of individual wage performance, but in terms of overall health of society itself, it can't be reduced to a micro-analysis.

Oh yes it can. If you can point to what health of a society means we can make a first pass at measuring it.

> Even if you could argue college is not producing economic gains, but merely a signal, one has to look at a future where structural unemployment from automation may make a lot of work unneccessary, period. Do we eliminate education when work is no longer a necessity?

No, for the same reason we won’t eliminate drinking coffee or walking in the park. We’re rich. We like it, we can afford it. Let’s do it.

> Or could it be, that it might be better if people have a lifelong opportunity for intellectual enlightenment, it might be cheaper than funding prisons to house them, or falling back to religious institutions to give humans something to do that has meaning besides straight up consumption.

Intellectual pleasure is consumption, a pleasure for a relatively small minority of people. School is the closest to prison most people get, the most locked down, unfree environment they will ever encounter, sitting for hours doing as they are told, when they are told, asking permission to use the bathroom.


>It’s also unpleasant. Most people care as little for literature as I do for American football. Forcing them to learn about it leads to no lasting knowledge or appreciation and makes their lives actively worse.

>School is the closest to prison most people get, the most locked down, unfree environment they will ever encounter, sitting for hours doing as they are told, when they are told, asking permission to use the bathroom.

Summary: Kids hate school. I don't wanna eat my veggies. Your conclusion: compulsory education is bad. My conclusion: make education fun and delightful. Look at the Finnish model for example.

Even if most of humanity could survive economically, not being literate, the world is far better off with universal education and literacy in innumerable ways.

It's shocking to see someone even arguing that kids shouldn't be compelled to be educated. Perhaps you could argue that adults shouldn't, but education overall in sociological studies has been shown to be an inoculation against violence.

Hatred of having to learn things you don't want to learn is not a condemnation of education. People often don't even know whether or not they will like something until they are exposed to it, and anyone with children knows this, how "I don't wanna do this" can suddenly turn into "hey, can you drive me to class, I don't want to miss this"

I absolutely hated history class in high school. I hated economics and philosophy in college. Until after I had taken them, I then became intensely interested in the subjects and voraciously read everything I could find.

We are headed into a world where people won't be able to delegate critical thinking skills to institutions, because institutions will have trust in them destroyed by fakery everywhere. Teaching people to think critically and be skeptical, to reserve judgement, demand peer reviewed facts, to hedge against rash action will be critical to stability in society in the future IMHO.

> Oh yes it can. If you can point to what health of a society means we can make a first pass at measuring it.

Many studies have correlated the education of women with numerous variables that represent non-economic quality of life: reduction in infant mortality, increases in life expectancy, reductions of violence. The UN and OECD have many variables beyond economics that measure well being. There are even surveys of overall satisfaction and happiness.

I also question conclusions that people "don't use" stuff they learn in college. That treats learning as a vocational enterprise. You don't just apply specific things you've be taught by rote memorization and practice, but you develop connections between subjects you've only briefly been exposed to, that can affect your decisions later in life, sometimes serendipitously and unconsciously. The same people who say they never use algebra or calculus, end up solving problems in Excel using the same skills they learned solving word problems in school.

I took 4 years of French in high school. I forgot most of it. However, when I travel, most of the latin roots I learned have helped me decipher signs in countries where I couldn't even speak the language beyond Helloy. And the experience of what I did wrong in French, later helped me learn Mandarin by avoiding the behaviors that turned me off in French.

I hated taking "required" classes in college. Now I am glad I did, because I was so narrow minded and pigheaded at that age. I also used to hate travel, really hate it. I was introverted, bored of long rides, uncomfortable in foreign lands where I didn't understand anything. But after being dragged all over the world, traveling and living abroad, my perspective on many things changed.

Too many people want to live circumscribed in a bubble. Education in all its forms, be it primary school, college, voracious reading, or travel, moving people outside their comfort zone has many benefits.

Eat your veggies, they're good for you.


I get where the author is coming from, and agree that higher ed isn't particularly efficient and has some serious problems. And yes, it is a 'game' to an extent. I've worked with 100+ colleges & universities and found their approach to educating large numbers of students to be sorely in need of revision. However, I also found this article simplistic and very much the product of an economist with a particular agenda rather than someone with more of a background in learning whose take on it is reasoned and informed.

First, and this is important, he seems to value only knowledge/information currently known. Part of learning is forgetting, and knowing that you've forgotten something. His argument doesn't take this into account at all, and essentially places equal value in someone who never knew something vs someone who once learned something but forgot it. These are not equivalent at all, but its a very economist way of reducing the world and accidentally losing fidelity in the process.

A great deal of higher ed is about exposure to the breadth of ideas that make up our current understanding of the world. You get a chance to explore fields of study and use frameworks, processes, etc from them. All these shape your perception and approach to life, help you discover what motivates you, and provide on-ramps for re-learning later on. Contrast this with someone who's never been exposed to things, and they simply wouldn't know what they didn't know. In the age of Google and being able to find a solution to anything, you still need to know what question to ask, and that requires an exposure to different fields and approaches and to know what you once knew or were exposed to, but have since forgotten. It builds intellectual humility, versus the self-assuredness of ignorance.

Next, the turn of phrase in the intro that students "have to soak up precious knowledge like a sponge" is basically the theory that the mind is an empty vessel to be filled, which is a common misunderstanding of how humans learn. We learn through interaction with our environment, and the things we learn are as much perspective, approach & process, etc as it is about fact-based knowledge. Not sure if author is using this term interchangeably with learning, but based on other reading it seems like he may not have strongest grasp of this distinction.

These learning science nuances are just one thing the author has a blind spot for. I also don't see him mentioning anything about the role of education beyond simply a job market feeder. This isn't and hasn't ever been the sole metric higher education has ever held itself to - only trade schools focus on this metric. It's incredibly reductive to view education in this way, not least of which because you lose a necessary precondition for successful democracy (an informed citizenry).

Here's another telling quote, clearly showing his argument has a pretty narrow focus:

> Researchers consistently find that most of education’s payoff comes from graduation, from crossing the academic finish line. The last year of high school is worth more than the first three; the last year of college is worth more than double the first three. This is hard to explain if employers are paying for acquired skills; do schools really wait until senior year to impart useful training?

According to Amazon reviews of this guy's book, he likes to set up a lot of straw men, and this is an example of one. Of course employers are not necessarily paying for acquired skills, but they're also not just paying for signaling (his focus) - they could be paying for acquired experience, perspective, demonstration of sticking things through, self-knowledge, etc.

Again I think it's important to look at the words he's using to get a sense for whether he understands the nuances of what he's talking about. "Skill" is a particular thing that most of higher ed intentionally doesn't focus on because they're not trade schools. Either he doesn't quite get that, or he's choosing to reinterpret education's purpose for the sake of his straw man. If we reduce everything to a market-oriented "skill", knowledge, theory, perspective, etc have no value. A good economist doesn't leave value on the table like that, unless they're trying to fit it into their particular argument.

His anecdote about a guerrilla student auditing a degree's worth of classes and not having them valued isn't a particularly smart take even from an economics perspective. That's a one-off libertarian fantasy argument of sticking it to the system. At scale this idea collapses, because a) schools would crack down on free-riders, and b) once this good is more available in the market, the market would respond by pricing it better. But with an n=1, the market can't price it, because they don't know what it means. Did this student actually show up to these classes, or just say they did? Did they get to know their classmates and learn from them? Did they understand anything they were being taught? As an entrepreneur who's had to hire quite a bit, I'd see a prospective employee's claim of having attended Princeton for four years but not getting a degree as needing serious verification.

I think an economist's perspective is important to add to the discussion on how to make higher ed better, and signaling is an area that higher ed needs to get better at (see microcredentialing as one solution for instance). However, while the author makes some good points about grade / degree inflation and alludes to a few other things that really matter like rising costs, I also don't think he's got the macro perspective really well sorted, at least from the blind spots above - either he's willfully ignoring them for sake of argument, or genuinely doesn't know them because he wasn't exposed enough to those fields. Teaching a couple years at Princeton doesn't make one an expert on the system as a whole, much as just getting an education doesn't mean you know the first thing about how education works. Elite colleges work very differently from other forms of post-secondary education, and lessons learned & opinions formed there are not necessarily broadly applicable. Elite colleges are so much more about signaling that its easy to over-index on that and form a theory that sounds nice but isn't very accurate.

Any call for blowing up a system needs to be put in a larger context that any large organization / institution is going to be inherently pretty inefficient, but this doesn't mean the absence of it is a good alternative. Thing is he has a particular POV on this, if you read more of his bio [1]. He works in a very libertarian-focused economics dept at GWU and is funded by folks that are taking a particular agenda toward education and have taken a (highly unusual) active role in faculty selection [2]. This background alone shouldn't be disqualifying (lots of agendas exist in ed, good to have diversity of perspectives), but can be a lens through with you read this and whether he's being intellectually honest in all his arguments.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bryan_Caplan

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/05/us/koch-donors-george-mas...


Admissions based on standardized test scores ONLY. Make colleges co-sign loans. Fixed it.


Since the article says the same thing happens in high school, it seems incredibly likely that your solution is not actually a solution and would have no impact.


Yes, let’s continue to let athletes and legacies distort the application pool!


You're aware that people can pay other people to take their tests for them, perhaps?

Add on the difference between the scores of people who can afford to pay for tutors and the scores of people who can't, and you'll begin to see the problem.


What's the size of that difference? 30 points?


The usual complaint about wealthy families buying college access is explicitly standardized test prep courses and tutors.


Why Elites Dislike Standardised Testing

> It is absolutely true that the SAT is the reason this scandal occurred. But for standardized testing requirements, the millionaires and celebrities charged in this scheme would not have needed to search for “side doors” to get their children into elite colleges; they could have walked right in through the front.

...

> SAT scores correlate strongly enough with IQ that the SAT is interchangeable with IQ as a test of general cognitive ability. Cognitive ability is highly heritable; the single strongest predictor of a child’s IQ is the IQ of the child’s parents. There is also a correlation between income and IQ. That means smarter than average parents are likely to have smarter than average kids and higher than average incomes.

> The educational attainment of an SAT taker’s parents is about as strongly correlated with higher scores as high income is; the median student whose parents hold graduate degrees scores a 560 on critical reading and a 576 on math, only slightly lower than the richest students in the dataset by income, and a full standard deviation higher than students whose parents hold only high school diplomas.

https://quillette.com/2019/03/13/standardized-testing-and-me...


Standardized test is still better than alternatives for reducing poor-rich gap.


South Korea actually kinda does this (your university depends on one single test), and the results aren’t that pretty...


South Korean here. The reason this continues is that while it may not be pretty, everyone agrees it is a lot better than what came before.


Can you expand on what you mean by "aren't that pretty"?


Not sure what the GP was thinking, but I'd imagine having the future course of your life decided by a single day (or week or whatever) of standardized testing is, well, unpretty.


If the university’s and students’ interests are aligned there’s no need to mandate what admissions are based on, universities will admit those they can help (most). An income share agreement á la Lambda School is clearly superior here to loans. The university is far better able to shoulder risk than an ignorant student. The university can diversify its risk across the entire student body. Individual students can’t.


Standardized testing is horribly broken in multiple ways and relying on it heavily also destroys the quality of education. Moreover, if you'd read anything about this latest scandal you'd understand how much it's possible to game standardized testing.


The upper class view education as necessary for signaling, the middle class view it as necessary to build skills, and the lower class view it as useless.


The main problem is that students in the US are insanely busy. The curriculum is substandard no matter where you go. In the future, I’m hoping to see more individual studying encouraged by the school. It’s a good skill to pick up, esp considering skills might age faster.

Classes are a waste of time, out of the 1.5 hrs, there’s maybe 20 minutes of content.

Teachers tend to be full of themselves and incompetent.

Professors are busy with research, grants etc. curricula tends to be out of date.

God when I think about the shit I could have done in the 16 years that I spent in school I legit want to puke.

But the worst people are the administrators. I’m yet to see a single school administrator make a rational decision. This is particularly apparent in the responses to school shootings. Yeah, make it more like prisons, thats are gonna help. Also the prevalence of women in school administration is not good for the male school population, they make decisions that tend to ignore certain gender differences.

Don’t even get me started on the idiocy that is school athletics.


Don't get into the habit of looking for things to blame. The internet will keep you well fed. Finding things to blame, obscures clear thought and expression of your underlying needs. Find those needs and keep focus on them without blaming anyone. It's a much healthier route to connecting with people and getting those needs met.


In my experience, teachers are competent. It's just that their main competence is teaching those who are unmotivated and unwilling to learn, so those who are willing mostly get neglected. It makes perfect sense if you think about it.


Do you see the contradiction in saying that school was easy and pointless, and simultaneously saying it kept you from doing things? It sorta has to be one or the other.

The blatant sexism is also a problem.


What sexism?

No, you are required to pay attention, and therefore unable to do something more productive.


Do you really not see it?

"Also the prevalence of women in school administration..."

Implying that male administrators, purely by being male are not making whatever nebulous errors you complain about.


It’s not about them not making errors or not it’s about them making decisions suitable for women students.


you probably meant it as "because most administrative staff are female, male interests are underrepresented at the highest level"

I cant really argue with it because i've honestly no idea which male interests could possibly fall short in the context of a school, but anyway.

your phrasing of the initial statements comes across as sexism, because it sounds more like: "only males can represent all students interests" you probably didn't mean it like that, but that what it sounds like, tbh


Ok, I felt that e.g. drawing was mostly figure drawing rather than say car designs.


Why is one of them for male students and one not? Because those are your preferences?


You are looking for something that isn’t there.

It’s because I wasn’t provided the other option and I’ve noticed that the preferences we pretty neatly aligned along the gender lines.


Why didn't you drop out then?


Visa.


So you added to the demand for this otherwise mediocre product (education), and then wonder why the product quality isn't better? I think it is just supply-demand economics.


In my opinion all education criteria must be eliminated as soon as possible from all immigration rules worldwide, but until then, what can I do.




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