How much of Chinese education is about signaling?

Alex Eble and Feng Hu have a new and interesting paper (pdf) on this topic:

Wages are positively correlated with years of schooling. This correlation is largely driven by two mechanisms: signaling and skill acquisition. We exploit a policy change in China to evaluate their relative importance. The policy, rolled out from 1980 to 2005, extended primary school by one year. Affected individuals must then complete more schooling to obtain their highest credential, the main signal of interest. If the primary mechanism behind schooling returns is signaling, we would expect little change in the distribution of credentials in the population, but a large increase in schooling. If skill acquisition dominates, we should see no change in length of schooling but a change in credentials. Our results are consistent with the signaling story. Further consistent with such a story, we estimate that the labor market return to another year of schooling is very small, though greater for the less-educated. We estimate that this policy, while redistributive, likely generates a net loss of at least tens of billions of dollars, reallocating nearly one trillion person-hours from the labor market to schooling with meager overall returns.

In a nutshell, that’s lots of signaling.  Might the pointer there have been from Ben Southwood?  I am no longer sure.  Via Nathaniel Bechhofer, here is a recent study of education and earnings from U.S. data.


As a teacher at one of China's top-100 universities, this seems right to me. Teaching at Chinese schools is mostly test-centered and focused on checking off requirements. Even graduate students expect to be told what is on tests beforehand and are not ashamed to have forgotten what was on a previous test. I think there are a few reasons: 1) their primary and secondary schooling is focused narrowly on the Gaokao, with any other skills being ignored for the sake of higher test scores; 2) most schools are run by civil servants with little or no experience in front of a classroom, and they make decisions based on targets set by the Ministry, not the classroom experience; 3) there's no sense of diminishing marginal utility, and little value placed on learning that isn't a lecture. I've seen students given 6-8 hours of lectures 7 days a week. This isn't an efficient way to acquire skills, but it creates a long transcript to signal education.

Has anyone ever done a broad, cross-job survey looking at the skills that workers use in their jobs everyday? I'm thinking of stuff like "does mental math" or "reads small descriptions at a certain reading level". That might help tease out the schooling that is valuable skill acquisition.

Conformity is still a dominant aspect of chinese schools. So they have a lot of very good students, but few great ones. Statistically they also exhibit different ethics in graduate schools regarding idea generation. To put it politely.

Right, this is why I am richly skeptical of China as a hub of innovation.

Big C innovators, as a group, are not exactly what you would call traditionalists.

The authors of the U.S. study "reveal notably smaller net effects on lifetime earnings compared with previously reported estimates". Over time I would expect the trend to continue, the effect of which will be to encourage young people to find alternatives to conventional higher education. I've commented many times that the combination of excessive pricing of higher education together with declining opportunities for those with higher education degrees, especially those in the lower half, will bring an end to the long period of increasing participation in conventional higher education. Indeed, I've suggested that this will mean the end of the higher education industry as we know it because colleges, in particular the large public university, depends on the lower half for survival: they pay the tuition, attend and fund the athletic events, and contribute to the foundation. This likely also means increasing income inequality, as the elite colleges will continue to attract and graduate the most promising students while the large public university, the great leveler of the 20th century, will pass into history. Goodbye, Columbus!

Of course, what I'm saying is that average is over. I work with physicians, and I (along with many others) have been advising them that if they wish to maintain their autonomy (i.e., not become an employee of a hospital or medical center), then they must do something to distinguish themselves, such as by forming or joining a large group practice (single specialty or, better yet, multi-specialty) or affiliating with (for example) an academic medical center. Similar advice should apply in the higher education industry: for a university to thrive, or even continue to exist, the institution must do something to distinguish it from other, similarly situated universities. There's college football and basketball, but I wouldn't bet the university's future on the quality of its athletic program. GMU and Florida State University have distinguished themselves (at least the economics departments of the two schools) by advocating an anti-government, free-market philosophy with a research emphasis intended to promote that philosophy. Whether GMU and FSU make a significant contribution to our knowledge of economics is beside the point, just as whether the large group medical practice improves health care is beside the point. It's the ability to distinguish the university or the medical practice that likely will determine its fate.

Research programs that know the answer before they start aren't research. These are erudite bullshit.

Research: I have a question I don't know the answer to. Maybe I should read up on what's going on? Or maybe do an experiment? Or gather some data? You know, do my research. And then, after I've thought about it and looked at all the evidence, draw reasonable conclusions?

Starting with a conclusion - whether that conclusion be that markets are right, capitalists are pigs, Jospeh Smith was a prophet, there is only
One God and his name is Allah, feminism grrrrr - and then looking only for evidence that supports the conclusion is utilizing the faculty of reason to advance some set of interests. In my opinion, it's almost always an abuse of reason.

More Krugman bashing. Wow.

While recognizing the point about preconceived notions, research can start with partial answers. A research institute can be devoted to replacing steel with aluminum. The researchers don't know what applications can substitute aluminum for steel, but they have a number of candidate applications and can be confident that some will work out.

An alternative explanation is that part of the decline in the earnings premium is that the marginal school is really worse today and that the style and content of education (as well as the quality of the marginal student) are less than they would have been in a 1960s style system. But it is hard to disentangle these effects in such an aggregated study, especially when social norms are also changing.

Now that Mammon is the one true god perhaps relating education to life-time earnings is more important than acquisition of knowledge for its own satisfaction. Ergo, education isn't about knowledge and understanding, it's about income. Since the more one knows doesn't necessarily mean that one earns more, by these standards higher education that imparts knowledge but doesn't increase lifetime earnings is a failure. Better to be ignorant and wealthy than informed and of ordinary means.

Nice concept if you are a trust fund baby looking for self actualisation work rather than having to pay for your food. But the vast majority of humanity are not in this place, they are being forced to give up years of their life and large sums of money because of a zero sum arms race forced on them by romantic idiots.

This is not true of most people in the U.S. You can eat, have a roof, and the basics of utilities on something approximating minimum wage in most states - just be a scab if you get sick.

It is true if we're talking about the endless demands of the masses for symbols of status to prove they are cool kids.

Are people not better served by earning a living and using their spare time to learn/do however much or little they want rather than having an entire year of 'teaching' jammed down their throats?

Erudition is generally best acquired alone.

There are a few exceptions - most of the hard sciences are difficult enough to warrant the integrative approaches of conventional classrooms. And there is an exceedingly rare lecturer who does legitimately raise one's level of awareness in humanities, but these people are very, very rare.

But few classrooms are going to offer anything comparable to a close reading of Harold Bloom on Shakespeare, Milton Friedman on monetary history, Paul Kennedy on military history, or Montaige on anything else.

The key thing education can provide is critical, focused, feedback on students' *work*.

Work can be a lot of things but most usually involves writing in which you assess evidence and think through arguments - whether Biology or Shakespeare. Students need repeated efforts and focused comments on their work in addition to grades. Once you build skills, yes, people can soak up lots of stuff on their own.

When I read these threads I suspect a lot of people's experience of higher ed has been lectures plus exams, in which case they've been cheated.

Agree generally, but in practice?

1. The professor has to be more intelligent than the student, generally. This is typically the case with research types, but often is not the case for the upper decile students against low quartile instructors at institutions.

2. The professor has to care. How many research type professors care about students? 10%? "Looks pretty and didn't catch anything completely stupid in my 2 minute reading of their 10 page paper - A" is quite common.

3. Both student and professor need to be learning focused, as opposed to ego-focused. This isn't terribly scarce among professors, but "I got a D+ in Chem 1 and I'm going to med school" undergrads at marginal state schools? What's the point in working with that?

1. This is about skills. Teaching is not that different from coaching a sport. You need a coach who will scrutinize your performance and push you to do better. Intelligence is great! But it's over-rated. What matters is willingness to keep at it until your performance rises.
2. Most U.S. higher ed is not R1s.
3. There's a real challenge in selling undergrads on the idea of raising their game. But 'twas ever thus, no?

Fully agreed that this is hard to pull off! From an admin or state legislature point of view you just want students marching through and getting degrees, and minimal effort all around works for a lot of people.

whereas American higher education is about which 'my child attends' bumper sticker you can slap on your awful Porsche SUV...


A lot of elite firms in NY and SF will say "Ivies only" in a jobposting. "Well, yes he's an idiot but how were we supposed to know? He seemed professional in in the interview and he went to Cornell"

After middle school - where I learned to write coherently and do algebra - little of the education I've had has been useful in any endeavor, except in impressing pretentious people.

likewise. I'd be thrilled if the U.S. would transition back to K-8 intensive, high-quality education and call it quits. at that point push entering the economy for most, trade schools for those inclined, and college for the 5% who really would benefit from standing on the shoulders of giants.

But what about day care?

I think what he's arguing for is an education system that's more appropriate to the needs of students and the economy rather than "OK everyone gets pre-college training and then everyone goes to college and then everyone becomes an attorney" style.

At a state school I'm familiar with: the professor gives a homework due the day before the exam. The homework *is* difficult to do. The professor posts solutions to the homework on his website the day before the homework is due, so you can just copy if you want and get a 100. Class average on the homework? 72. The professor then just takes these homework questions, simplifies them, and puts them on his exam. Class average on the exam? 58. Um...

These kids have no business being in college. They probably have no business in the upper tier of skilled trades. They have a business in service industries, sales, logistical operations, etc, where you don't need anything more than basic English and math skills - the stuff you got in middle school.

Imagine what a cook you could make if you took all that time he wasted on "A Separate Peace" and trigonometry and dodgeball and put him in a kitchen at 14 or 15, and allowed him to learn from other cooks. Or, better still, allowed a marginal student to "try on" many different un-skilled and semi-skilled professions to determine which he liked best?

nailed it, thanks. and yes, i'm arguing that most people should be entering the workforce at 14 - there's a ton of low-to-no-skill work that a 14 year old can do, and earn a paycheck for, and begin to get a feel for adulthood. the idea that people are 'children' and need 'day care' until 18 is asinine and self-fulfilling. i suppose if the robots take all those jobs then it's a different scenario :/

In my case, I'd say I greatly benefitted from education. Oddly, though, I'd say more than 90% of my college education was a waste of time. Nearly all of my benefit from college comes from just a handful of courses -- organic chem, biochem, neurobiology, neuroanatomy, two computer programming courses, and an EE course in linear circuit design. My college education could have been provided much more efficiently if it was structured around these, though I'm not sure there would have been a way to determine that at the time. It's like airbags -- more than 99.9% of all airbags are never used, and we could save a lot of money by only putting them in the cars that will need them, but we have no way of knowing which cars those are.

I do regret not taking a statistics course. And the biochem course was offered as an easy one for non-majors and a tough one for majors. I regret not taking the tough one.

If you had just gone to college when you were 5. You'd have an extra 12 yrs for your career.

10 years. I graduated Berkeley when I was 19.

I was a Chem major. The science courses required for this were imperative, but the courses I took which I highly value to this day include Philosophy [one taught by the son of Arthur Holly Compton], History of Western Civilisation, English Literature & Art History.

'Social sciences', economics & psychology were crap. I even thought so at the time.

thank you, it is good,i like them,
I do regret not taking a statistics course. And the biochem course was offered as an easy one for non-majors and a tough one for majors. I regret not taking the tough one.

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