Steve Postrel on marginalism and the paradox of higher education

Via Reihan, this is an excellent blog post.  Rather than excerpt, let me reproduce the whole thing:

By now, you may be getting sick of reading articles and blog posts about the crisis in higher education. This post is different. It proposes an explanation of why students have been willing to pay more and more for undergraduate and professional degrees at the same time that these degrees are becoming both less scarce and more dumbed down. And that explanation rests on a simple and plausible economic hypothesis.

First, let me dispose of the idea that “college (and business school) is all about signaling.” The explanation I present allows signaling to represent a major part of the value of higher education, but it says that the historical increase in willingness to pay for education is not caused by an increase in its signaling value. (And the evidence for signaling or screening education premia, as opposed to human capital accumulation, is pretty thin anyway.) I’m certain signaling plays a role in creating value for certain degrees from certain institutions for certain people in certain situations. That it dominates the value proposition for college seems like a stretch.

My hypothesis is that it is precisely the dumbing down of U.S. education over the last decades that explains the increase in willingness to pay for education. The mechanism is diminishing marginal returns to education.

Typical graduate business school education has indeed become less rigorous over time, as has typical college education. But typical high school education has declined in quality just as much. As a result, the human capital difference between a college and high-school graduate has increased, because the first increments of education are more valuable on the job market than the later ones. It used to be that everybody could read and understand something like Orwell’s Animal Farm, but the typical college graduates could also understand Milton or Spencer. Now, nobody grasps Milton but only the college grads can process Animal Farm, and for employers the See Spot Run–>Animal Farm jump is more valuable than the Animal Farm–>Milton jump.

So the value of a college education has increased even as its rigor has declined, because willingness to pay for quality is really willingness to pay for incremental quality. This principle holds true in many markets. For example, a roof with mean time to failure of 5 years is a lot more valuable than one with a MTF of 2 years, but a 25-year MTF isn’t that much better than a 22-year MTF for most owners. A fuel economy increase from 12 to 15 miles per gallon is a bigger deal than an increase from 27 to 30 MPG.

Empirical points in favor of this diminishing marginal returns/reduced overall rigor hypothesis:

1. Rigor appears to be declining over time at all levels of American education.

2. Rate of return evidence classically suggests that the big marginal gains to education come from lower levels of education.

3. The median wages of college graduates have been flat, but the median wages of high-school-only graduates have gone down even more.

4. The MBA market has continued to support higher tuitions and enrollment despite the secular trend in rigor.

5. Employers increasingly favor those with more education even as they complain more about the quality of the graduates they hire.

Additional implications:

1. The incremental human capital gained from attending a (truly) better school rather than a typical school is increasing, since the additional learning is more basic (and hence more valuable) than it used to be.

2. Five and six-year undergraduate-to-masters programs should grow to accommodate those who would benefit from additional human capital.

3. More-rigorous high schools will attract larger premia (in either tuition, ability to be selective, or, for public schools, their impact on local property values), because at lower overall levels of rigor the increment of human capital is worth more.

Extensions of the logic to signaling considerations:

1. If you accept that the marginal ability and effort necessary to acquire education increases in the level of education (the flip side of the assumption about diminishing marginal payoff), then the signaling value of the typical degree is actually declining. The innate ability difference between the college and high-school-only graduate shrinks as both curricula are made less rigorous.

2. Signaling by the quality of the institution attended and the difficulty of the major subject studied is becoming more important; a very selective (or hard to complete) school or major adds back some of the lost signaling power of the typical degree.

3. We should see college degrees becoming more important in occupations that wouldn’t seem to “require” them under the old model of college, such as service staff in food service and hospitality jobs.


"That it dominates the value proposition for college seems like a stretch."

That is a question of studies and statistics. But I don't see Harvard or MIT beating down PS# school doors in Harlem. I don't see any colleges eliminating admission requirements. I don't see any attempt to disaggregate fit with effort on the supply side.

I have a more sanguine view. Sanguine is a funny word. It sounds like it means you are being optimistic even when you know you shouldn't. Anyway, I read Milton. It is not obvious to me that I shouldn't have spent that time learning video game development. There is an educational long-tail effect and we live in a time where noone knows what is important.

"Anyway, I read Milton. It is not obvious to me that I shouldn’t have spent that time learning video game development. "

I enjoyed Milton, but I would agree that it's high literature and it's probably not an essential read.

However this line from the link is somewhat shocking:
"The most difficult novel some seniors had ever been asked to read was Animal Farm."

I attended a rural high school in Tennessee in the 1980's. 'Animal Farm' was required reading in 9th grade. I think it was pretty much the shortest and easiest book to read out of the entire curriculum. Granted Animal Farm is chock full of allusions, historical context, etc. but for it to be classified as 'the most difficult novel' is a bad indication of the current standards.

My current belief is that you can learn reading, math, and almost everything else by studying human physiology.

Novels are for fun.

There is a simpler link between dumbing down and increased prices: you don't dumb down your course in order to reduce demand, you dumb it down to *increase* demand. Now education economics is odd, and there might be reasons why this type of demand increase doesn't result in higher prices, but nor should it be so suprising that the usuall laws of economics can sometimes re-assert themselves.

Near as I can tell from working in the higher-ed industry (on the supply-side, crunching numbers in "enrollment management") the history of the issue is this:

-The 60's & 70's saw a large increase in the demand for higher-ed, at least in part due to the not-getting-shot-in-a-foreign-country effect it could have on your life.
-Colleges, used to managing the rigor of their programs to be in line with the top 25% of HS grads, gradually evolved to meet the needs & aptitudes of the new comers who were comparatively less prepared to do the work: remedial courses, grade inflation, easier programs, etc.
-Once these new offerings were in place, colleges were able to be less selective on quality because the infrastructure was in place to handle less qualified students.
-At the same time, state funding to higher education began its gradual decline (in combination with the complementary forces of increased availability or Financial Aid) making that ability to handle less qualified students into a requirement in order to boost enrollment & tuition revenue to cover the decline in funding.

As near as I can tell, that downward pressure on rigor has largely leveled off as the demand for higher ed from HS grads has leveled off as well. (it's at roughly 70%, though still ticking upwards but at a much slower rate that previously) There is, however, greater pressure & scrutiny than ever on raising the traditional metrics that measure the quality of an institution: Graduation & retention rates, and it is possible that the downward pressure on rigor will increase again, albeit for different reasons this time, since the easiest way to raise grad & retention rates is to make it easier to graduate while lowering the retention standards for low-achieving students, e.g., "We'll no longer kick you out for poor performance"

Consider all of this a water-color painting of the picture. There are lots of important details left out, but this gives a general if not comprehensive idea of what has influenced the decrease in rigor.

Could you conclude that as you dumb down the cost in effort to send the signal goes down, so the willingness to pay cash goes up?

What a fascinating proposition. It seems to me that it might apply in Britain too. How about Canada, Australia, NZ? How about the Continent?

Are there countries where the trends go the other way, so that there's recently less incentive to study after age 18 or 19?

[quote]It used to be that everybody could read and understand something like Orwell’s Animal Farm, but the typical college graduates could also understand Milton or Spencer. Now, nobody grasps Milton but only the college grads can process Animal Farm,[/quote]

It seems rather striking that this is the sole example of decreased rigor in the body of the post. Am I really supposed to believe that we went from a country in which every human being could read and understand Animal Farm to one in which not a single high school student could grasp the work?

The whole rigor-decline hypothesis seems to be a bit speculative. Assuming he is right and indeed "rigor" in university education has gone down; won't it manifest itself in (say) an old engineer being much smarter than a new engineer? After adjusting for the years of on-the-job-learning this doesn't seem to be true.

So also for mathematicians, economists, statisticians etc.: Is a freshly minted top-school BS today far worse than someone who graduated in 1960?

I don't see how physics education has become less rigorous, either. They use basically the same textbooks from 20 years ago and the number of foreign students has increased over that same time.

Much of this signaling is related to non STEM fields, a degree in engineering or chemistry from Sul Ross State or Wisconsin-Whitewater has a lot of utility and will usually get you a job in that field, just probably not a glamorous one. In these fields the BS has a lot of non negotiable requirements, for example organic chem, calc 1 & 2, etc... Generally don't vary much whether you take them at Penn State or Laney College, proof of this is how easy it is to transfer credits like this. But in non STEM fields the signal is pretty strong and matters a lot.

I don't want to get into the STEM, non-STEM debate, after all a Classics graduate at a good school should have had a very rigorous education, but the signaling situation is quite different. Liberal Arts, Social Sciences, Communications, Business, etc... have very different signaling patterns than Electrical Engineering or Agriculture. It is a whole different world. And one isn't inherently better than the other.

When more classically educated people debate this topic, they often see the college universe as divided between STEM and non-STEM, which is often thought of as humanities and social sciences. This overlooks the fact a majority of bachelors degrees are now awarded in subjects that are neither STEM nor humanities and social sciences. The overwhelmingly most popular major is business, which constitutes 21.7% of all degrees awarded. When you add education (6%), communications (4.9%), health professions (7.5%), parks, recreation, leisure, and fitness studies (2%), psychology (5.7%) and security and protective services (2.6%), you will see that a majority of degrees are awarded in subjects not recognizable within the traditional conception of academe. If we add up all of the traditional humanities and social science subjects, we see that they constitute about 19% of all degrees awarded. Thus, discussing the rigor of college over time is akin requires some initial calibration that is rarely performed. Are we talking about the ease with which a generic bachelors degree can be obtained or are we talking about the ease with which a B.A. in English can be obtained? It may very well be that college broadly defined is less rigorous, but that individual majors are no less rigorous than they used to be.

KLO has an excellent point, but the post is too deep in the tree to respond to directly.

One indicator might be the number of education and business master's degrees that are now given to students right out of school -- rather than to students who worked for a while, then went back to get a further professional degree. I don't know that I see much of a point to getting an MBA right away, but it's common. (I once hired a U of Chicago MBA who had gone straight through and NEVER held a job. Imagine getting a master's in business administration and never having held a job!) If going straight through to get a masters is becoming more common, this would be an indication that a BA is being devalued.

This is a good point. It seems like a good rule of thumb to be skeptical of hypotheses that rely on an assumption made by older people that younger people are less educated / well-behaved / motivated / etc. than they are. (As has been noted, this is a perennial complaint by every generation.) And without that first proposition, the basic theory unfortunately can not hold together.

I agree completely.

But let's dig deeper and assume the "ubi sunt" theory is accurate in part. For instance, in John Knowles' "A Separate Peace" the students, who were I think 11th graders, read the Aenied in Latin. Most 11th graders today probably haven't read it in English; maybe a few excerpts.

Let's be generous and assume ASP is an accurate reflection of the average late 1940s US high school (although it was actually set in a very exclusive boarding school) and that 11th graders have fallen woefully their forebears in reading-the-Aenied-in-Latin skills. This is a cause for hand-wringing if and only if they have replaced reading the Aenied with nothing. But that's obviously not true; 1940s 11th graders didn't learn about general relativity or plate tectonics, to say nothing of the post-1950 authors who have replaced Virgil in the Lit department.

It's like saying "in 1900, a full 50% of people owned horse and buggies; in 2000 that number had dropped to zero. Therefore mobility dropped significantly in that century, as people didn't have horses and buggies to carry them around anymore."

Now you can argue that reading "Song of Solomon" or "Light in August" or "Lord of the Flies" (all books I read in 11th grade and which wouldn't have been available to ASP'ers) isn't as rigorous as reading the Aenied, but it's a much less convincing argument as saying that kids are going from reading the Aenied to reading nothing, which is what the OP suggests.

An engineer or doctor has to perform to a certain level to graduate, and their respective fields have become more challenging. Instead of focussing on a specific slice, look at the whole. I don't think the education debt crisis is about engineers or statisticians having too much debt. It is about people coming out with no rigorous skill that has any demand in the marketplace but are burdened by huge debt loads.

I work in an industry where high school used to provide adequate preparation to enter the field. Reading ability, basic math, the ability to show up. What level of education does it take now to do a pretty basic description of something in a written report that could be presented to a customer? The specific knowledge of what to write about comes after high school, but the ability to express a thought in writing? The local community college usually has to put people into a remedial program to teach them the basics before they can go on to the specific field.

In my field geology, a masters is the working degree in industry for the most part, except in metal mining where it is a bachelors. In fact a Ph.D Is often a problem in employment much of industry because of both the amount of proprietary information and because of what are perceived as bad work habits in academia.

However the problem is that the field has expanded so much in the past forty years that in major areas especially related to Gas & Petroleum and environmental fields, a graduate with just a BS is only just beginning to be able to read the literature and still needs to be trained to be of any use to an employer. This is not because Geoscience education has declined, though I suspect it might have become a little less rigorous, but because the breadth of coverage is too great to allow such a generalist degree to have much value. I know this true in many other fields as well.

No no, not everyone. Just every high school grad. Look at the high school drop out rate in the 50s and 60s. Back in the day high schools flunked a lot. The lower students dropped out to work in factories. Now take this to its logical conclusion!


School, high school in particular, seems more rigorous than it used to be for smart kids. Look at the prevalence of AP classes.

But there's a much stronger effort to keep the failing kids in and give them a charity degree. The same is true, to a lesser degree, of college. So as we've expanded enrollment, we've lowered the average rigor, even if rigor is the same or somewhat better for a constant population.

Look at the prevalence of AP classes.

No, look at the number of students taking, and passing, AP exams. Slapping the label "AP" on a class does not automatically make it more rigorous, and there is anecdotal evidence that in some places, the AP classes and their grades are not actually up to AP standards. Also anecdotally, I believe the rate of taking and passing AP exams *is* higher now than back in The Old Days, however defined. So your thesis seems to be true, but your proposed measurement is not ideal.

This is a fair point, and I think I agree with it.

I would challenge this statement. A cursory Googling found a 2007 study* that indicates that high school graduation rates increased steadily until around 1950, and they've been dropping ever since. At a minimum, students are graduating in approximately the same numbers as during the time period you indicate.

Do you have any evidence suggesting otherwise? It seems like this might be one of those statements that "feels" true but ultimately is not.

* "The American High School Graduation Rate:Trends and Levels", figure XIII

This, and the caption on the graph you cited, suggest it's the GED making up the difference. With GEDs counted, the graduation rate goes to 84.7% in 2008, which is quite a bit higher than the 1950 peak in the graph you cited.

As someone who has been teaching English literature at a decent (PhD-granting) university for 35 years, let me assure you that in the humanities, standards have gone down and grades have gone up. I knew a number of students who flunked out of college in late 60s and early 70s whose work today would merit a B average. And students' sense of entitlement to a good grade (B or above) seems to increase every year. At my university, the overall grade-point average is around 3.25 on a 4 point scale. That means that if a student has a 3.0 average (i.e., a B average), he or she is in the lower half of the grade distribution (probably around the 35th percentile). This student could probably read Animal Farm, but not Gulliver's Travels.

Riehan suggests that high school standards have declined in rigor but does not go far enough back. It used to be that most kindergarten students knew not to pick their nose. Now, the nose pickers have become the norm. Boogers are everywhere. The next time you sit down at a conference table, you will have to decide whether to check it for boogers, exposing the nose pickers that are present in your office or else you will have to pretend not to notice, exacerbating the problem.

"Rather than excerpt, let me reproduce the whole thing"

That's a pretty inexpensive way to produce content....

So Joe, tell us, how much did you pay to read it?

Tyler reads a LOT. He goes to interesting places, meets interesting people, and eats in interesting restaurants. This blog is his (and Alex's) way of sharing a whole lot of information, opinions, controversies, and miscellany with a bunch of us readers. It also provides us readers with a forum to discuss the information, opinions, etc. Look at all the comments in this thread. Apparently it's working just fine.

Shorter version: Don't yuck my yum.

One fallout is that the comments on the original blog seem to congratulate Steve on a great post while some really sound rebuttals have come up here. Hope Steve takes the time to go through MR comments.

You can't look at this as a supply issue without consider this as a demand issue as well.

Specifically, we have made many occupations that previously required high school education now require a college degree. police, fire, human resources, insurance agents, etc. similarly, some high school qualified accusations have paid well enough to attract college grads, which, over time, becomes the competitive qualification for the job.

Given that some of these jobs have demand low qualified college grads, you would expect this.

As we've expanded enrollment and worked to prevent dropping out, we've taken people who would have been dropouts and given them high school degrees. But they still get the same jobs. We've taken people who would have finished high school or trade school and funnel them through a BA in history. But they still wind up a police officer, just four years older and deeper in debt.

The employers are still looking for the same people. It's just that those same people are now slightly more credentialed. So the employers adjust their requirements to match.

If there's been a drop off in rigor, it's at the low end.

you never--*never*--see posts like this or signaling explanations from people who have been through engineering or applied math higher ed, because it would make no sense. I doubt very much that anyone comes out of a program having successfully learned a bucket of new mathematical techniques and principles that they probably could never have learned all of on their own and asks 'why did I do/pay for that?'

What we say is: "I should have gone into Investment Banking instead."

I'm not buying the declining-rigor hypothesis either, at least without some better evidence than what is offered here. Take the first link, for example. It doesn't say that rigor has declined at all. Rather, it says "a fragmented English curriculum and a neglect of close reading�may explain why the reading skills of American high school students have shown little or no improvement in several decades despite substantial increases in funds for elementary and secondary education by federal and state governments."

So to rephrase, rigor has either increased or stayed the same, right?

Actually, I agree with you about your skepticism of the declining rigor hypothesis. I think some may be conflating it with grade inflation.

The way I think you can test these hypotheses is to ask the question: were my college textbooks as hard as todays college textbook for the same course?

The whole argument is pretty shaky. e.g. I don't see how his #3 is evidence of reduced rigor:

median wages of college graduates have been flat, but the median wages of high-school-only graduates have gone down even more.

For arguments sake consider the converse, where both college and schools became more rigorous. I don't see why this cannot lead to the same decline in school-only salaries. The demand on skills is a moving target too.

That observation is a non sequitur. It neither hints at more rigor nor less.

Postrel's reasoning for the statement that "median wages of college graduates have been flat, but the median wages of high-school-only graduates have gone down even more," is that there are diminishing marginal returns to education. If the high school and college both became more rigorous, more employers would be satisfied with employees having high school educations. This would reduce the value of college educations because fewer employers would need employees with college educations. Since his (unsupported) premise is that the rigour of high school and college educations has decreased, more employers demand college educations. It is not a non sequitur.

You could test this with cross-market comparisons.
I am an American taking a masters degree in the UK, because I won a scholarship. The rigour is waaaay below my senior year of undergraduate at a large public university in America. I thought it was just my school, but talking to friends at Oxbridge I hear that UK masters education is the same everywhere: you have about one "long" assignment or perhaps an assignment and an exam per semester. Almost no "problem sets." The British students think it's hard, except for the ones who have studied abroad in Canada, the US or Australia. Masters degrees typically only take one year. UK undergrad takes only 3 years. There is far less use of math and programming.
In spite of the far inferior level of rigour, job prospects and wages are pretty good for everyone hoping to work in the UK. My program is considered the best of its kind, and employers fawn over us at the job fairs. Meanwhile, tuition has skyrocketed in recent years, as Postrel would predict.
You hear a lot about students from all over the world wanting to come study in the UK. I believe students from developing countries want to come here because cheating is rampant in their countries. I believe students from developed countries want to come here because college is easy (although not as fun as America), you can study abroad without learning a language, and the quality of life in Britain is great. Add to this that British education is old and therefore prestigious, as most of the world doesn't keep up with trends in its rigour. I believe this last point is true because my masters helped me get a good fellowship to the best PhD program in my field back in the US.

The general consensus among my Chinese colleagues in (US) grad school is that most of their friends who went pretty much anywhere other than the US (especially outside the anglosphere) for grad school were those lower in the academic heap.

The argument can be summarized as "College is the new High School". High School is necessary for most employment opportunities. So we can price it as high as we want because people would pay anything in order to be eligible for a job. But we cannot do that with teenagers, as they cannot get loans. So the strategy is to move High School to a higher age bracket (18-22) and charge a fortune. Genius.

I thought the same thing, and was struggling with how I was going to word this point.

Some people are questioning about whether American education, or specifically American high school education, has declined in quality. But consider one effect if it has, and alot of the college curriculum is the way it is to fill in the gaps. American students and their parents are now paying high and increasing tuitions for something, whether its the education itself or the signal to employers, that several decades ago they got for free. Well, they were paying for the public schools indirectly through taxes, but I don't think that the amount of public money being funneled into the public system has gone down during the period where the quality (as has been claimed) dropped.

I think its an important point that one big effect of the changes in the structure of education in the U.S. has been to extract more money from American middle class families.

There is a near monopoly provider of secondary education in this country, and the government is also heavily involved in the tertiary education oligopoly. So this could be a case of people using monopoly power to raise prices, or keep the same nominal price but adulterate the quality.

Is the premise we are all starting with that kids aren't as smart at graduation as they were x number of years ago when school was cheaper? I've seen links on how kids study less than they did years ago but no correlation as to whether this means that the academics has gotten easier, or that the kids are better prepared.

Any links anyone has pointing to that would be appreciated. I'll probably use this as a diving board to track that down as well.

"I’ve seen links on how kids study less than they did years ago but no correlation as to whether this means that the academics has gotten easier, or that the kids are better prepared."

Or that information is more readily available....

The decline in time studying mostly took place before the mid 90s, if I can head you off there.

Tangential anecdote: you wouldn't believe how many parents tell me that the kids these days are smarter than ever because look how well they can point and click at age 6. Make of this what you will.

I have a simpler answer to the problem: the market for education is actually approaching some sort of equilibrium. In an equilibriated market for eduction, ex ante the marginal student should be indifferent between going to college and not; ex post we would expect to see some students regret the loans they took out.

All I know is, I have to interview about 50 people from the local community college to find one worth hiring.

Screen better. Just go through the applications and throw out all the ones with spelling mistakes or 1337 5p34k.

Then invite the remaining 7 people in to see which one turns up on time and dressed appropriately.

Job done.

(Last time I did this I wrote back to one girl, highlighting her use of txt style abbreviations and childish slang because I couldn't believe that someone would apply for a job that way. She replied back with a response that demonstrated she had NO IDEA what I was complaining about. She literally didn't understand what I was pointing out. Very sad.)

I have problems with the high school rigor assumption. When I went to high school, calculus was not even offered. I asked my wife, who went to Girl's High in Philadelphia, probably the best high school then in the city, and they did not offer calculus either. Today, you pretty much dont get into any top school without having taken calculus. All of the local high schools offer a chance to take courses at local universities. Schools now offer multiple physics and chemistry courses. In my day, there was one of each. Need I add that kids today have much better computer skills than those in the 80s?

Getting out of the sciences, history is taught much better. In my day, we memorized dates. Now, they read multiple sources and look at root causes for changes in history. As to English/literature courses, I hear these awful things, but I know that my kid read Animal Farm in 9th grade. His class read at least 6 Shakespeare works. To be fair, they also read some more modern stuff that I thought was schlock. Still in total, I dont see the great dumbing down.

Bashing current high school education just strikes me as mood affiliation.


This is consistent with my impression. It seems to me K-12 educational standards bottomed out in the '70s and '80s when I was in school, when "self-esteem" theories of education were at their apogee.

I'm consistently impressed with the challenging curriculum my high school aged children are exposed to in the same school district I attended.

Except for the politicization of science, but my kids aren't on AP science tracks, and I imagine those who are get the good stuff.

+1 You can also compare textbooks from both periods and reach the same conclusion--generally--if you control for schools. When I go back to the university I graduated from, I go to the university book store to see what books are assigned as textbooks and assigned reading in my area. Clearly, much more calculus in intro courses than previously.

As has been mentioned previously, Greg Cochran's take on census data is that schooling has improved while students have gotten dumber.

That was a great link! But you didn't accurately portray Cochran's comments.

"that schooling has improved while students have gotten dumber."

A better paraphrase would be:
"schooling may have improved but the 'average' student has gotten dumber."

The reason given for the 'average' student getting dumber is that we are keeping the dumber children in school longer and they are dragging the average down.

The “rigor” argument is backwards because it is built upon illusory data. People are willing to pay more for higher education not because standards are lower, but because a high school degree simply isn't as scarce as it used to be.

America used to deny equal education to large swaths of the population and thus far fewer people had high school degrees (or even if they had a degree, it came from an inferior institution). The original author can claim that standards were higher in the past solely because he is cherry picking which schools, students, and socioeconomic regions to review and ignoring horrible conditions elsewhere. Today an immigrant child is taught English and included into the class room. The fact that he is educated is an achievement in itself, not equaled by so called superior foreign schools. Accounting for this discrepancy alone shrinks much of the achievement gaps recorded in the data.

I don't think this assuages the concerns raised by the signaling model. In fact, I think the signaling model is perfectly consistent with these findings.

Assume that the most valuable traits an employee can possess are the intelligence and conscientiousness to be in the top 10% of productivity. We'll use the author's Animal Farm -> Milton example. It stands to reason that the top 10% would be the ones able to make the Animal Farm -> Milton leap.

If high school and college have been simplified, then college may no longer be a signal of Animal Farm -> Milton, it is merely a signal of Animal Farm. What would we expect in this scenario? We would expect that the top 10% would need to invest in additional signals to show their Milton ability: MBA/JD/PhD. Most of the recent wage gains have gone to advanced degrees, while college wages have been flat. This is consistent with the hypothesis that much of the wage premia from college in the past was returns to signaling membership in the top 10%, i.e. possessing the ability to make the Animal Farm -> Milton leap, rather than returns from education.

Disclaimer: I believe that STEM degrees are a valuable investment in human capital. However, I find the signaling model very convincing with regards to liberal arts degrees. Education costs are rising and the number of students graduating in STEM is flat. The signaling model must be taken seriously because if it is true, we are wasting a tremendous amount of resources on higher education.

High school today is more rigorous for honors students, much less rigorous for average students.

This might very well be true. Would be nice if there were some data to confirm it. However, if true, it kind of makes Postrel's arguments weaker, or at least bifurcated.


John Quiggin SCOURS the evidence and finds more support for the human capital model. I'm shocked.

Here is my model partially explaining education. It is damn obvious that daycare is there to keep the rugrats from under food. At some point they enter a gray area where it gets less obvious and seems like they should be learning things. They learn things that are commensurate with their ability and maturity. You don't see Harvard master teachers teaching too many average toddlers calculus. Then, at some point you can't keep them in school forever and they must have learned something so you release them into work probation where you hope they don't break the equipment.

Under foot, not food.

If they are underfoot in the kitchen, the result is both.

" 3. The median wages of college graduates have been flat, but the median wages of high-school-only graduates have gone down even more"

He might want to rethink that sentence. And the piece as a whole.

"In 2010, The New York Times [NYT] reported on Cortney Munna, then 26, a New York University graduate with almost $100,000 in debt. If her repayments were not then being deferred because she was enrolled in night school, she would have been paying $700 monthly from her $2,300 monthly after-tax income as a photographer’s assistant. She says she is toiling “to pay for an education I got for four years and would happily give back.” Her degree is in religious and women’s studies."

I'm wondering if information asymmetry plays a role in these issues; I suspect there would be significantly less demand for education (at least, in the lolberal arts) if expected return on investment were better disclosed.

Something like the surgeon general's label on brochures for fourth-tier law schools, departments of identity politics, and for-profit cesspits might be appropriate: "WARNING: Attending this institution leads to impoverishment and debt-bondage."

A warning label would be great.

Perhaps we could post it like the health department post scores at restaurants. Have every college post (in large numbers) the average wage for graduates in that major from that school who are working in a position related to their degree. Post it conspicuously in areas that students pass on the way to class. Also post the differential between that number and the average wage for high school graduates in that region.

I have trouble believing that people paying six figures to attend private schools to major in things like gender studies is really a major American problem. Very few people do that, even if they are disproportionately represented in the ranks of the 25-30 year-old underemployed with too much debt population. I would imagine even fewer people major in art history, which seems to catch the most flak for some reason.

"But typical high school education has declined in quality just as much."

How much evidence is there for this? My son's math classes were far more accelerated than mine were.

Same for the science classes.


Most of the relative inflation in college cost has come not since William and Henry James were attending Olde Grottlesex Prep or wherever, but since the days when Jeff Spicoli went to Ridgmont High. So, I find the basic premise of the argument doubtful.

How does one measure rigor?

Schools taught stuff like homemaking, wood/electric/auto shops, Lemarckian natural selection, civics, socialism (as in, legitimate co-equal economics), eugenics, but did not teach computer science, multiculturalism, EMH, Afro-American studies, advanced biology, anti-bullying, quantum physics. How is one to judge rigor?

Check out these archived NY State Regents Exams:

Those are the Chemistry exams since 1949. They didn't look much harder back in the old days, yet Regents chem wasn't a graduation requirement then like it is now. Plus we still read Shakespeare in high school. Animal Farm is great but is it really a more challenging text than any of Shakespeare? I think the perceived loss of rigor comes from requiring a broader fraction of the IQ distribution to take exams that only the advanced high school students used to take, but giving ridiculous curves to make it possible for everybody to pass (See NY's Math A and Math B debacle).
It's not that the *material* is getting less rigorous, it's the *grading regime*. And now that it's easy to pass those lower-level regimes, the signalling component of the value of education requires an arms-racey pursuit of undergrad and increasingly graduate work to stand out above the other million kids who rode grade inflation through 11th grade chem.

Might that fact that milton is now out of reach also reflect what the job market is looking for? Once upon a time you went to school, got a well-rounded liberal arts degree and got a job. Nowadays if you want to get a job in business it's much more valuable to have a degree in business/marketing/advertising, or maybe econ compared to, say, history.

I think the problem with current high school education is in the grading/ "nobody behind attitude", where we are starting to see a more obvious split in the high school class system - with the smart getting smarter (than previous) and the lower group getting less education BUT not failing/dropping out like before...For example, I do not agree that education is declining, in fact, I believe there are more oppurtunities to learn higher-ed information than there ever was... this is even being evidenced in the last 15 years - when I was in high school, we had advanced calculus and physics/chemistry - all classes that were comparable to entry level college classes... now, it is even beyond that, and I know of high schools that have even more specialized classes like anatomy, physiology, math theory... So I do not agree that high school education is declining, I think there are MORE oppurt. for higher learning...
HOWEVER, you have the LOWER tier of students who "breeze" by high school. Students rarely drop out/fail out of high school, and at least in my personal experience (living in rural and suburban areas) students will get a diploma and can have difficulty reading/writing, let alone being inadequate in math and sciences, unlike before where students would either learn adequate amounts and pass, or fail and drop out, not even getting a high school diploma (the reason for this is unknown, maybe its national educational policy, maybe its the "high self esteem attitude of our generation", maybe the importance of school is not articulated well to the students...)...
NOW - this creates a problem - students who would normally graduate high school and go directly into industry are INADEQUATE, forcing industry to hire "higher-education" students for jobs that most likely DO NOT need higher-education. So what is the message the public sees (partially by way of private universities, my personal belief): students NEED higher education to get jobs now. So now, these students who are already inadequate in high school education will go onto to higher education (and hopefully learn enough that they are slightly above the level they SHOULD be for high school graduate).
EVEN worse is now you are starting to see this in universities, where students will pass classes and graduate when they probably shouldn't (again, unknown, maybe its schools wanting to pass more kids to get more money, "high self-esteem" theory...) so now kids are breezing through college like high school and graduating when they shouldn't, and I believe we are starting to see a problem where now more and more kids want an even higher-education, like a masters/doctorate or med-school (don't believe that - look at the number of medical schools that have been founded in the past 40 years or increases in enrollment --- skyrocketing!), which is not even close to necessary, but as the college education gets worse (as high school has for the lower class of students), it will be needed, creating a negative vortex of increased spending for inadequate education for jobs that students could most likely fill with a GOOD high school education or minimal higher learning

This particular argument seems to be lacking in, ahem, rigor. No objective empirical data on either decreases in rigor or the potential effects thereof is offered. Hmm.

Of course signalling is the main driver of both increased educational attainment and, more importantly, ever growing educational costs on a relative basis, but this has little or nothing to do with decreases in the depth or breadth of material taught in either high school or college.

The average college graduate is going to be relatively less or more smart (or hardworking, creative, etc.) depending on what overall percentage of the populous attends college.

Wages as a percent of GDP has been falling since ~1970 even as productivity and college attainment have increased dramatically.

Barrel-bottom comment: Google "remedial education" for the Wikipedia entry, which cites without source the estimate that over 40% of all new college freshmen enroll in remedial coursework during postsecondary schooling. I read Tyler's post of Postrel some twelve hours ago now, but I don't recall he adduced remedial postsecondary courses, the advent of which I recall began no later than 1980.

If schooling is about capital formation shouldn't rigor be reduced over time as new discoveries about how to educate and new technologies come on line?

If the goal is to teach more people more of what they need to know to live a better more productive live. We should never focus on rigor just what is learned. Instead of the word rigor substitute something like, they need to learn more information, more important information and develop better skills. Once you mention rigor, though it can be a tool to get people to learn more, I think signaling because rigor is an indirect goal. Rigor in the non-signaling model in never the goal, learning is the goal and we are not sure that Rigor always increases learning (see Robert Frank).

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