College is a Consumption Good
Looking at Alex Tabarrok’s data, it seems that (a) college enrollment is up by about 50% over the past 25 years, and (b) most of the increase has come in “soft” fields like the humanities, “area studies”, fine arts, and communications rather than “hard” fields like STEM. So, er, why?
If the increase in enrollment comes from the notion that a four-year college degree will help people get better (and better-paying) jobs — and that’s the dominant narrative in the past few internet arguments I’ve had on the subject — then one has to wonder why people are staying away from professional degrees in droves. As Catherine Rampell reports (NYT, mind the dumbworms), graduates with communications, humanities, and area-studies degrees not only have the lowest median rates of participation in degree-requiring jobs, but they earn less (at the median) in any job than, say, education majors — let alone engineers. So why, if students are going to college to get better jobs, do they gravitate towards the majors with the worst job prospects?
Spoiler warning: I don’t know. But I have some ideas.
To begin with, a job-seeker choosing to major in English rather than Engineering seems irrational. Hanson’s Razor tells us that irrational behaviour is often rational signaling behaviour. Some of these liberal-arts students might be signaling authenticity: “That biochemistry major in the lab coat? He’s a sellout, just trying to get a degree that’ll get him a job once he graduates, even if he hates every minute of it. Me? I’m pursuing my true interests. My major in Late Renaissance Trephination speaks to the conflict in my soul.” Others, following Steve Jobs’s edict to “never settle”, might be signaling incredible confidence in their innate talent: “Sure, anyone can go get a MechE degree and expect to do well, but I’m not just anyone; I’m gonna hit it big despite the fact that my degree in Ancient Etruscan Feminist Poetry isn’t as marketable as a B.Eng.”
Perhaps some of these job-seeking “soft-studies” majors are playing a long game, signaling not just with their majors but with their careers.
I suspect he’s overthinking it. For a certain social class, the traditional four-year B.A. is a consumption good. It’s not about building human capital or about signaling that you already have human capital. It’s about enjoying yourself.
College is a socially expected consumption good, but still, what we’re seeing now is the real reason exposed when all the secondary reasons (Earn a paycheck! Join the world of 9-5 office work!) have evaporated. Most people go to college for personal fulfillment — to achieve all kinds of ends way high up on Maslow’s hierarchy. The rest is secondary.
If you can achieve those ends via cheap, subsidized public loans, then that’s just all kinds of win for you. And if you can get the public to write off those loans — because hey, we’re sticking it to the 1%! — well, Jesus Christ. Maybe you did learn something in college after all.