What is college for?

Here is an excellent post by Noah Smith, excerpt:

There are three extremely important forms of human capital that you can’t acquire on the job:

1) Motivation,

2) Perspective, and

3) Human networks.

These, I believe, are the types of capital that college is designed to build, both in Japan and in the United States.

Read the whole thing.


I don't network well and don't care to. I was born motivated. I got my perspective from military service, travel, working all kinds of jobs, and reading widely. So tell me, why do I have two master's degrees?

Maybe - like me: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2012/06/07/what-to-do-with-philosophy/ - you studied only or mainly because you enjoyed it. The best motivation, methinks.

Read closer, double-masters-guy. He said simply there are 3 kinds of human capital you can't get from a job. He didn't say 'here are the only 3 reasons to attend college'

Considering you pay dearly for one and get paid for the other, there better be more than a subtle difference.

Wow this guy sounds like me. I hope those aren't the three main benefits you get from college. Because if that's the case I waisted a lot of time and money.

Interesting take, but I'm not so sure. The Japanese educational experience is one of intense competition and tracking with the goal to go to the right university. Your motivation isn't in any particular way enhanced by the university experience - you already needed crazy motivation to get to the best school, at which time you coast until employment. The hiring process, at least historically, has been deep integration between the best companies and the best schools. There's a lot of signalling there, and the signals are very strong due to tracking of students. The experience in the states, for me at least, was more in line with what the Noah was saying - I learned to self motivate in college.

In the states, my experience has been that human networks formed in college are kind of thin. I went to a small liberal arts school with a good reputation and I met a lot of smart people there, but I don't know to what degree those connections have had lasting impact on my employability. It may well be that someone at OSU or somewhere may have a more robust network I suppose, or I could be unskilled at utilizing the network I had. Still, it seems unlikely to be a prime driver of the value of a college experience.

I am a strong supporter or the perspective thesis. If I had to give a weighting to the 3, this would be in the top spot by a good margin. Exposure and consequent perspective.

I am a strong supporter or the perspective thesis. If I had to give a weighting to the 3, this would be in the top spot by a good margin. Exposure and consequent perspective.

I agree with this. If I took nothing else from college, it was the revelation that I wasn't all that special in regards to both ability or lack thereof. In many ways, it was a liberating experience.

Here's an alternative take:
“How The Bowyer Family Played The College Tuition Bubble,” by Jerry Bowyer, Forbes, June 6, 2012

As a business owner, we have seen college graduates, from well known schools and impressive on paper and in an interview, who turn out to be colleagues who do not know how to think and solve problems nor how to communicate clearly. They do not stay with us long. What seems to separate the good from the mediocre are 2 things: some kind of customer service job (especially waiting tables) in high school or college that lasted more than 1 summer, and having participated in some kind of competitive activity (sports, debate, etc.) for at least a few years in high school or college.


There's a lot of gray area in the whole signaling v. human capital debate.

For example:
Motivation may be more innate than acquired. If that's true, then motivation may actually strengthen the signaling argument, not the human capital argument if only motivated people get into and complete college. Or maybe it is a learned and acquirable skill. I could believe either story. Or I could believe that it's a mix. There's an innate level of motivation in certain people, but it can be affected by outside influences.

Mainly, I never really understood why people tried so hard to make the case that college was all about signaling, or all about human capital. Can't it be a bit of both? Can't college signal some innate ability and be a place that teaches you something?

Of course. But blog comment threads are where nuance and moderation go to die.

Figuring out what that mix is might let us do better resource allocation, such as substituting a cheaper process for part of this. That could be done even if the answer is something in-between, like that college is 60% signalling for right-handed people, and 40% signalling for left-handed people who derive more value from it. That's a lot of signalling, so maybe we'd reduce subsidies to college overall, but not so much for left-handed people. For left-handed people, think "engineers," or something like that.

"Of course. But blog comment threads are where nuance and moderation go to die."

Considering I've had 20+ years of school with never the concepts being even hinted at within the ivory gates, not one single time, I obviously beg to differ.

Why the heck did you take 20+ years of schooling? Pure signalling?

As it turns out, yes. But you realize they don't advertise it as such, right?

It's a little fuzzy at the margins though. Without grad students producing papers, you couldn't really read papers for the information. So, it's a little more like a signaling circle jerk.


The right answer would have been "to find out when they let you in on the secret that it's pure signaling."

Yes. Didn't you tell someone to "fuck off" in a thread here earlier this week?

Yes, that Nazi fan of Anders Breivik. I stand by it. Friend of yours?

That claim runs completely counter to my experience. For me (and for most of my college peers), college was neither effective nor opportunity-cost-effective at imparting those skills. It mostly just credentialed us into jobs and/or grad schools and allowed us to discover the cheapest ways to get drunk.

I also call false dichotomy on the "at college" vs "on the job" contrast. A huge portion of my "network" consists of people that I met *socially*. A huge portion of my motivation comes from things that I've read and studied *recreationally*. A huge portion of my perspective comes from the activities to which I've devoted my *spare time*. If I spent 24/7 "on the job" then, yes, I might barely have grown in those areas, but few people work so much.

Can’t it be a bit of both? Can’t college signal some innate ability and be a place that teaches you something?

Of course!

But how often is what they specifically teach you of specific applicational use?

Even accepting the premise, we should be able to force a cheaper method of credentialing these things.

Exactly. Of course college is about both signaling and human capital, and I'm sure the proportions vary greatly among different kinds of students, colleges, fields, and employers. But regardless of what kind of value college provides, that value is limited at some X, and while X varies for each person, if the cost Y keeps rising far faster than inflation, it is likely to start passing X for an increasing percentage of students. Many claim that Y>X still for *most* students, but there's arguably a great deal of uncertainty for the individual student about whether it will be true for him.

There are three extremely important forms of human capital that you can’t acquire on the job.

Learning to hold your liquor.

Learning to give "no" for an answer.

Absorbing stuff that's substantially more mathematical or more abstract than the stuff you studied at university.

The author cites the University of Tokyo as his most prominent example and discusses the party culture of Japanese universities. He promotes the idea of networking to meet a spouse and dating as key parts of the college party experiences.

He does not note that the University of Tokyo's student body is 82% male and the professoriate is even more of a sausage fest. What kind of dating does he expect them to be doing? Perhaps the kind of 'dating' that happens in prisons.

Because all homosexuality is like prison rape?

Because if women don't attend Univ. of Tokyo, the men's only option is raping each other? That makes no sense.

Given the mentioned tracking, Toudai's students don't have any problems organizing mixers and the like with women from other colleges. Anyone doing any networking won't have an issue with this.

Important life skills, especially honesty, punctuality, and hard work, one learns from one's parents. Pity those who lack the proper parents.

I wish I knew how to compensate for that.

Baby licenses.

I don't think college teaches motivation. It might teach an individual what motivates them. It certainly doesn't make unmotivated people more motivated, although it might weed those people out so that employers can avoid hiring them.

The best way for college to teach motivation is to have it paid out of the student's pocket. Nothing motivates like seeing your own hard earned dollars being frittered away.

Given that is near impossible, perhaps each semester the student loan establishment should be required to send each student a statement of how much their monthly payments will be when repayment begins. Oh, and they could include the mean monthly salary for various majors.

There's a bit of motivation and perspective.

Interesting ideas. Well defended. Obviously false.

Why do you hire people from college? Because 90% of the people who didn't go to college are lazy while only about 50% of the people who did go to college are lazy.

Why did you go to college? To get a better job.


Microeconomics is an exercise in the obvious.

It isn't just signalling. It's also a self-enforcing labor cartel. Everyone who goes to college tacitly agrees to higher only college grads for certain higher-paying jobs, which thereby increases the percieved value of their own degrees.

Basically everyone pretends that degrees signal more than they actually do in order to protect the value of the signal they own and paid so much for.

And then you think "does everything in life have aspects like this?" and then you think "holy crap, life sucks and there is almost no hope of convincing anyone why it sucks."

We Jeremy's are not freethinking. So please refrain from signalling the opposite in the future.

I've acquired all three of those things on the job more than I did through my education so I really can't relate to those sentiments.

I learned motivatation when I discovered the bottom rungs of my industry weren't very exciting or remunerative and I had a lot to prove before I could quality myself for something better.

I learned perspective through the successes and failures in my career (and life) that taught me what things matter and what things don't, what things work and what things don't.

And I acquire a network at every company where I work. I got my current job with the help of a recommendation by a co-worker at a previous job.

Other than the motivation to never have to go back to school, I'm not sure what he's talking about. After reading his explanation, it makes even less sense. College was the lamest role playing game ever. It took four years to graduate and another four to undo the damage.

I suppose the "real purpose" of college is signalling, but along the way, it broadened my mind and dramatically changed the way I process and analyze information and think about the world, and my place in it. I was exposed to culture and philosophy in a way that I had not been exposed to previously, mostly because I was forced to read things and hear things that I would not have otherwise bothered with. I learned how to deal with and work with people that I didn't like, which is pretty useful in and out of employment. You pretty much get out of college what you put in, though, so I can imagine that many people get nothing out of it except a degree and 15 lbs of fat.

MOTIVATION? There's a joke. Nothing motivates you more than knowing that if you don't show up for work, they fire you. No motivation like that in college, where classes start late, and you can skip a few with impunity,

You want motivation? You want an immigrant trying to hold on to a job so they can send back remittances.

There's plenty of people in the world for whom that isn't motivation enough.

1- Working for a paycheck in order to pay the bills is twice as motivating as a college experience where most students won't see the bill (or pay the bills) for 4yrs, if at all.

2- What kind of superior perspective do you gain in college being around people your age, mostly from the same socioeconomic group as yourself? Compare that to travelling the world, starting a business, working w/Peace Corps, or even managing a Dairy Queen where you work with and are exposed to people from much different backgrounds & possibly with completely different values.

3- How many college classmates do most people maintain regular contact with: 5? 10? You don't think four years of work or travel would yield at least that many strong contacts? And the latter group of contacts would yield a larger network as there would be less overlap.

i agree with this sentiment, but I think some of it is major/school dependent. If you major in math for example, you learn a lot about critical thinking, approaching problems, and logic. What I learned in my upper level math classes has been incredibly valuable in my professional life as well (not so much applied, but the way of thinking and structuring arguments). I don't remember most of the other classes and would have rather traveled. College could easily be more focused and shortened to 3 years with a year of study abroad, civil service, peace corps,etc and people would be better off.

On that note, can anyone provide me with an explanation of why only the US and Japan have college systems like the one described above and why the rest of the world has 3 year bachelors and a much more narrow focus?

I genuinely have no idea what Mr. Smith is talking about. I've built a much larger network out of college than I ever did inside it (although I will admit: I don't have an MBA), I can't imagine college giving motivation to someone who doesn't possess it already, and perspective? Perspective is the one thing I wish freshly-minted graduates had just a smidgen of. Just a drop.

Written, in short, like a true academic.

"I've done X."
"I can't imagine Y."

See the problem here?

I could see the problem there, if that had been my argument.

The "I've done X" part was explicitly in reference to networking. Lot's of people build networks in college, which I acknowledge. Lots of people don't; and so I don't think "networking" can be a significant and _distinctive_ advantage of college.

The "I can't imagine Y" part was explicitly in reference to motivation. I've known and worked with hundreds of college students, as a peer, a teaching assistant, a mentor, and so forth. I have not observed the act of going to college to instill motivation where there was none. Dropping out for a few years, maybe.

Three prongs to the argument; three prongs to the response. Don't conflate. You have to put a dollar in the jar labelled "fallacy of composition."

So by this logic, if we sort training regiments by SAT scores, the benefits of college can be achieved in an extended boot camp with a tour overseas after.

The readers who claim that they did not have to go to college to acquire the 3 forms of human capital Noah Smith refers to forget that they are exceptional people and they should not expect everyone to be exceptional like them. The greatt majority need college education to cultivate human capital

Correct. But your point doesn't depend on readers of this blog being exceptional. The key is that personal anecdotes don't rebut a theory that proposes a general pattern. The anecdotal responses are doubly futile. First, anecdotes are statistically irrelevant. Second, they're subject to all sorts of cognitive biases. "I, personally, went to university only for the highest and most noble of reasons!"

Isn't much of Noah Smith's post an anecdote?

This strikes me as a bit of overthinking, with two significant mistakes. Noah's claim that attending college classes does not signal intelligence is obvious; unfortunately, it's also a strawman. The signaling proponents do not claim that spending four years in a university provides evidence of anything - it's *acceptance into that institution in the first place* which provides the credible signal. Put briefly, being smart enough to get into Harvard sends a good signal to employers that you are part of a desirable employee pool. This is taken to extremes in the Japanese example: students work so hard to get into university and so little thereafter because once they've obtained admittance, that's all the signaling they require.

The second issue is confusing what college might theoretically be good at with what the "purpose" of college is. I wouldn't disagree that for many people, college does teach motivation and perspective. But that is not how colleges present themselves, nor, I wager, how many people would think of their intent. If this is really what people were trying to get out of them, colleges would probably do a much better job of marketing these benefits. Furthermore, these are benefits only attained by those people who are *successful* at college. Considering the high drop-out rate of many institutions, and the fact that many individuals get by with middling records, I would have to imagine that these skills could be taught much better if there were a desire to do so on the parts of the institutions.

It's amazing what absurdities can be defended by skilled rhetoricians.

Getting married early and having a kid is probably a lot more motivating than college.
Going to work and working at different places gives you perspective of what the real world is like. college shelters you from the real world.

Noah is sort of right and the human networks part, but he doesn't mention how this is sort of a zero sum game for the people who don't go to college, and that there must be cheaper ways of doing the same networking.

college shelters you from the real world.

And that is a great thing.

The "real world" for most working people involves driving the same stretch of road to get to the same job to do the same thing day in and day out. There is no need to rush that experience.

Tyler, how would you advise a prospective student to choose a college, given what you've established and what are considered traditional reasons for going to college? How about graduate school?

Does anyone believe that a undergraduate degree holder from George mason or any of the numerous massive commuter schools in the U.S. come out with any form of networking.

What college is for should be divided between the elites where networking, social signaling, and status seeking are important versus the mass of students at large state universities where credentials are about the best that they can hope for.

Consdering that George Mason has a six year graduate rate of around 60%, a significant number of students who are starting at George Mason come out with nothing but debts.

I think networking is mostly a myth. You might get a couple contacts and a few recommendation letters. Maybe that's all there is to it, but if so it's oversold. If it's not a myth then it is admitting too much on the part of the college. "Come here, we offer you a bunch of other people who came here to meet each other, and we offer you to them as well." I like to compare that to the beginning scene of The Social Network where the (soon to be ex-) girlfriend says "Oh, you would do that for me?" with no small amount of sarcastic resentment.

The idea that on-the-job experience would not provide networks is quite frankly ludicrous. I both work for a top tier strategy consulting firm and have a top tier MBA. The network from my job is vastly more powerful than the MBA (that one is mainly good for drinking)

But could you have gotten the top-tier consulting job without the top-tier MBA?

Signaling is networking. Networking is signaling.

Networks- Desperate search for jobs after graduation, my mom ends up knowing the person who gets me a job. My college circle didn't fare much better.

I'm guessing the motivation applies to students in the right situation. Maybe studying under the right professor can help you decide what motivates you.
But as far as everyday motivation, I think I just got better at taking shortcuts and weaving massive fabrications for papers I didn't wan't to write.

I like the point about college being a "moratorium" on work - a time to build human capital - and I agree that people need some transition between high school and starting a career, but I think Noah jumps to conclusions. Meeting people who inspire you, meeting people who are different from you, and building social skills are important. But couldn't college just be a hideously, inefficient, expensive and outdated way of doing this?

Why do people assume that online learning implies being on your own or not interacting with others? Think of all of the diverse and interesting people you could meet if you weren't confined to a college campus. You would certainly have access to better teachers, and you might be able to afford travelling around the country or world while you study rather than playing beer pong in dorm rooms.

Last point, I think it's interesting to consider the difference between signaling and screening. For students, college is a less effective signaling method than it used to be. You're paying more to compete with a far greater number of college graduates for a limited number of attractive jobs than you would have thirty years ago. For employers, college might still be a pretty efficient screening method, a way of cutting down the applicant pool.

...that you can’t acquire on the job:

False on its face. So I read the post to see if, in context, his post recovers. It does, a bit, but not much. I'm sorry Tyler, but it's not an excellent post.

Revise and resubmit, Noah.

I strongly disagree that college has any positive effect on motivation. It probably has no effect but there is some chance that it diminishes it for some attendees. I was pretty highly motivated when I applied to college. Like so many other facets of a person, college merely validated that I retained my motivation throughout my attendance.

Perspective and networking, I agree with.

I'm disagree'ing all around though maybe it would be better written replacing "job" with "private sector corporate job". I got all three from single term military enlistment (including human networks that I still maintain and use to advance professionally twenty years later) and I would be willing to bet some folk I know in the Peace Corp and professional outside nationwide consulting would agree.

The smarter you are the less motivated you need to be to graduate. The college advisers/counselors often tell you to study what you like and are interested it. If you do that it requires less motivation.

Motivation? They bring it with them - they got it at home. They get a little boost when they see the pampered schlubs and Missy-types knowing they can beat them at Tick-Tack-Toe blindfolded.

Perspective?! From whom? Part time profs.. rather than doers? You only get perspective ..from being shot at - not in boot camp.

Human networks. You can sell that - if your student is top-tier in a top-tier school, but the typical middler going to what was formerly a Teacher's College in the 50's - that's a crock to get their tuition. Clutchs of middlers play 9-hole par-3 golf

I love you academics. You are like realtors when were No Doc loans. You can't build fast enough to to absorb all the Gvmt. loans these kids sign up for. A recent sad laugh was Tennessee. For years there was only one Pharmacy school. All their Pharm grads did really well.... There are now six pharmacy schools in the state. Guess what?!

These are incidentals, not "what college was designed to build."

I'm not sure whether I'm agreeing with Mr Smith here, but college - for individuals who do not actually acquire work relevant knowledge there - is mostly about an opportunity to have a three-four year bacchanal (ideally for which they have convinced society or their parents to foot the bill) and signal that they are the kind of people who, in addition to being smart, thrive in such an environment (i.e. they're fun).

It's not about serving some deep societal need or building a better worker, through motivation perspective and connections. C'mon. You believe that, you got to be some Western middle class wanker who's bought into the idea that his privileges are justified.

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