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.


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