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Education and Making a Good Living

Economist Bryan Caplan has a new book out that argues higher education’s chief function is to sort, signal and certify. Caplan may well overstate his case; but his thesis, for those who wish to refute it, is a tough nut to crack.

We educators in the system are now tasked to demonstrate the value we add through measures termed “assessment.” Most professors, I think, would agree that whether this “assessment” we begrudgingly do (because it’s now demanded of us) actually demonstrates the value that we purport to add is questionable.

Rather we would argue that the grades we give and have always given should suffice for “assessment.”

And Caplan’s book argues that to the extent that real social science measures have accurately tested such, the “value added” (in terms of objectively demonstrable conferral of retained learning and skills) of a higher ed. degree is, again, questionable.

That last point is where most professors would balk. I’d like to think we are “making a difference.” And Caplan’s point, if true, is a disturbing one, at the very least.

But even if Caplan is right, we are “making a difference” in other ways. When I was a student at Temple Law, where the vast majority of us were “in state” (PA) and got the relatively affordable in-state tuition, I remember one professor remarking that we were getting a good deal because we were getting “status.” That’s presumably what we chiefly were paying for.

In a country whose Constitution bans titles of nobility and demands all citizens and persons to be treated equally under the law, higher ed. is a mechanism that helps to create a de facto social class system. Higher ed. really does open doors to moving up the latter. And in certain professions, the degrees are necessary. If you want to become, among other things, a medical doctor, lawyer or public school teacher, legally, you need the higher ed. degrees to be licensed.

So, at the least, higher ed. gives value to those who attain the degree by giving them a credential. It also gives value to employers. To an employer, “sorting” and “signalling” is not a mere thing anymore than attaining a valued credential is a mere thing to an employee. Employers rationally value the information that a higher ed. degree confers. Even if not legally required for a professional license, human resources departments will use higher ed. degrees as criteria for qualifications. Caplan doesn’t dispute this; but rather sees this as more of a bug than a feature.

Why is it a bug? Three words: At what cost? If we look at how much higher ed. costs a multitude of parties (whoever is paying for it, whether the student herself, the parents, the taxpayer, the employer, etc.), it’s a lot. Is what we get worth the cost? Given the questionable objectively demonstrable value in skills and retained learning added by higher ed., we could ask, rhetorically, isn’t there a more cost effective way of delivering the goods? Especially to those who don’t want to pay as much.

Some folks actually don’t mind paying that much. It has been argued that for some/many higher ed. is as much a consumption good as an investment. If you and/or your family can afford it. To those who have the extra disposable wealth, it’s viewed as a classier thing to do to invest in your kids’ higher ed. as opposed to getting another diamond ring or Mercedes.

Given the connection between higher ed., especially at the elite level, and social class, schools with huge endowments can afford to open their doors to the very talented but less economically privileged and bear their costs. Simultaneously, the wealthy can continue to send their kids to these schools at their own costs.

But what about the rest of us?

My answer is we are paying too much for what we are getting and therefore, a reform is needed. How it will come in this age of Uber-like technological disruption, I’m not exactly sure. But I do see it coming and I hope the venerable institutions manage to change and survive as opposed to die.

But even given Caplan’s thesis, as it currently stands and as noted above, college is necessary in order to get certain types of jobs that pay reasonably to very well. Again, if you want to be a medical doctor, attorney or public school teacher, legally you need to go to college to secure the requisite professional license. Likewise, as it stands, if you want get a decent job offer in an office, you probably need to go to college, even if the law doesn’t compel such as it does with professional licenses.

Corporate HR Practices.

Corporate human resource offices often require those degrees, for the sorting-signalling effect. And even when they don’t, if they receive a flurry of applications for positions, they end up using those degrees, again to sort and signal. The HR departments take all of the applications and put them into different piles. One pile is those that have higher ed. degrees; the other pile is those that don’t. And they throw those that don’t into the trash.

Given this kind of sorting isn’t legally required, it might not always be this way. But this is the way it currently is.

Obviously, if you want to go into the trades, you don’t need a college degree (and arguably we need more tradesman). But there is one profession that one might associate with a needed college degree but that doesn’t require one, and that’s when you become your own boss. I’m not just talking about people who get into Harvard, but drop out just before graduating because their brilliant entrepreneurial idea is already off the ground.

The case of Steven, the Entrepreneur.

Rather I’m thinking of my good friend Steven. He’s 66; he owns and manages a multi-unit building in a quaint but vibrant North Eastern town. His mortgage is almost all paid off (he’s had it for roughly 25 years). And it’s worth about 5 million dollars. He doesn’t come from a privileged background. He has no college degree.

After buying the property he took accounting classes at the local community college, not to get the degree, which he didn’t, but to learn what he needed to so he could do the books for his business. (He could probably learn it online for free today.) He learned bookkeeping so well he eventually got a 9-5 day job as a bookkeeper. Yes, the kind of job you can get without a college degree. But not a great job. Rather he was mainly in it for the benefits and extra cash. And then he was laid off (again, not a great job). He since got benefits from his partner.

Timing and opportunities

And here is the kicker, he worked mainly chicken shit jobs until he was 40 and bought the property. He worked usually as a cook at local restaurants. He partied a lot. But one thing that was consistent during all that time having fun was, he was always good with money. If he had bad credit, he would not have been able to get the loan to buy the property.

So his work, in order to build the wealth and keep the operation running, is very demanding, requiring both effort, plus the right skills. The skills could be termed business smarts or “acumen.” But he brings a lot of talent to the table. Just the other day he was telling me how he is revising his leasing contracts, and I’m thinking, wow you are reasoning like a corporate attorney.

When I went into his basement and saw the heart of property operations, I was overwhelmed at the detail, the pipes and wires, etc. He had all of the tools a general contractor would need to keep the place functioning. Of course, he uses outside contractors who specialize (plumbers, electricians); but he can do a lot of the legwork for them, saving them time and him money.

He also does a lot of the landscaping, which he excels at. He has an immunity to poison ivy. Last year, he came to my yard, got his hands into it, and removed in a remarkably short period of time poison ivy that had grown over a number of different trees and my HVAC.

Dog Eat Dog World

But back to the necessary business acumen … how can I put this? In order to protect his interests, Steven has to be a real son of a bitch at times. He’s probably too aggressively litigious when it comes to tenants who break leases and leave deficiencies. Though, if there is something wrong in one of the units, it gets fixed right away.

The parking lot he owns is in an area where parking is highly valued; so he constantly has to police it. His building is next to a Dunkin Donuts and folks sometimes think it’s okay to park on his property and block ingress/egress because they will be “real quick.” Nope. He will point his finger at them and say “get your car the fuck off my property.” (He is actually polite but stern with his initial request; he only gives the “fuck you” to the people who argue with him after being so alerted.)

It’s a dog eat dog world; I certainly wouldn’t enjoy doing many of those things. That’s why I am where I am.

So if you want to be your own boss and make a good living — get rich even — you don’t need a college degree. But you do need the right kind of talent and skills and, of course, luck always helps.


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Jon Rowe is a full Professor of Business at Mercer County Community College, where he teaches business, law, and legal issues relating to politics. Of course, his views do not necessarily represent those of his employer. ...more →

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55 thoughts on “Education and Making a Good Living

  1. I don’t know. I’ll have to think hard about this because I know my emotions get in the way.

    I am a college professor (Biology, with ecology/botany/conservation the subfield). I love teaching. No, maybe I need to qualify that: I love face-to-face teaching. I enjoy having the students in lab, showing them techniques. I enjoy getting out in the field with students because there’s always some weird quirky thing we encounter (toadlets! a hive of wild honeybees!) that is a sidenote on what we are doing but ultimately becomes more interesting.

    I did a little online teaching one semester and strongly disliked it. It was hard to get a sense of who the students were; without tone of voice and facial expression I found it hard to know which of the discussion board posts were serious and which were people being flip/misunderstanding/only offering the shallowest possible insight.

    However, the way things seem to be changing, I wonder how much longer I’ll be allowed to teach face-to-face; we have entered into a partnership (I really, really hope it’s not a Faustian bargain) with a management company that runs online classes. The people who teach through them do “intensive” seven-week courses, all online.

    There’s some fear, I think not-unfounded given pressures from the State Legislature and also those who would comment on higher ed, for us to go to an increasingly lean model where much of the teaching is done that way. (Yes, even labs, and that’s another side problem: I’m encountering students who did their intro labwork online, and they come into my class not knowing how to measure things properly or what the different lab glassware is for). It does make our jobs harder.

    While I agree that not everyone NEEDS college, I also think stripping college down to a very simple point-and-click model where people are only kinda-sorta developing skills (my anecdotal example with the people in lab who don’t know that beakers aren’t high-precision measuring vessels) and it makes me ask – is this really going to lead to the educated workforce that we need? Aren’t a lot of employers already complaining that they have to do an awful lot of retraining?

    I suppose the answer is either: Have a degree actually mean something (which means cutting back on some of the pats-on-the-head and extra-tries we currently give) or just eliminate college altogether, and go to an apprenticeship model, where (for example) every nurse in the nation has his or her replacement shadowing him or her for eight years to learn the ropes. But that seems inefficient to me.

    I recognize a lot of my ability to discuss this is clouded by my emotions – mainly, my worry that I will find myself, in my 50s, having to retool for a job (and I KNOW I would die fast in the true dog-eat-dog world; I am the biggest conflict avoider anyone has ever seen). And I like teaching face-to-face and think I’m good at it. But I do worry we are rapidly heading to yet another “bimodal” system where the wealthy and connected (and perhaps, the very, very smart among those who are neither wealthy nor connected) get traditional face-to-face higher education, and everyone else gets a bunch of online classes, whether or not that’s good for that particular major.

    I also kind of feel the need to note I’m NOT getting rich doing this: my last W-2 showed wages of just over $55,000. (I am a full professor, with over fifteen years experience and always receive good performance reviews). So it’s not “high professor costs” that is necessarily the problem. (And yes, I say that because of the trope of the professor who works eight hours a week and makes six figures. I don’t know anyone actually like that).

    I would not accept less money than I currently make to go to all-online teaching, either. I’d…. I don’t know, I’d try to find something else to do. I don’t know what, which is why I get so emotional about this. I get that college is expensive; my university has tried not to be, but I fear we’re just going to get squeezed out of existence because of shrinking state budgets and pressure from the “go to college in your pajamas” online places.

    (I do think shrinking state budgets, at public schools, is part of the issue: there has to be a decision made – do we want to stop paying lip service to “oh, an educated workforce is important” (if you’re unwilling to fund it) or do we reallocate more funds to higher ed so they don’t have to keep jacking up tuition and fees. Public universities, especially regionals, were largely developed to educate people in underserved areas. About half our student body are “first generation” college students and I know a lot of our graduates have done better than they otherwise would have because of the degree.)

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    • I think administrative bloat is arguably a bigger cost problem than funding the salaries of full time professors.

      This opens up a different can of worms. Some of those administrators don’t do much if anything other than show up to collect their nice paychecks. However, many of them do work really hard .. but the problem is they are working really hard navigating a byzantine system. Some/many of those “rules” are externally imposed. But some/many are internally generated.

      As I see it, people wrongly assume the complicated additions make things better; but they don’t. They make things more expensive. It’s like the intellectual Keynesian equivalent of paying people to instead of digging ditches that will be filled back in, to navigate a byzantine set of rules to get your desired outcome.

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      • Yeah, we found out just how important admins are when we had a huge round of early retirements, followed by offices being collapsed down into each other – so the remaining admins are all now doing 3 jobs. I’ve just learned that paperwork stuff has to go out at least a week earlier now.

        And yes, a lot of the stuff is Federal mandate. I am bitter because my ONE afternoon off the week after spring break, I will be sitting in a “Official Training” session for some kind of federal thing. I don’t know if it’s because someone else donked up earlier and we’re all being punished (that happened before) or if this is just a new requirement.

        While I am on board with a lot of the framework for helping students with various disabilities, some of the other stuff we have to do (Monthly grade and attendance reports) eat up a lot of time and it seems the only feed back I ever hear is either “But can I still make an A in your class” (rather than: “Do you have some time for me to come in for tutoring?”) or “I was only absent 2 days and you marked me absent 3.” (There are no attendance points in my class, and the reports are unofficial, so…)

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          • we have to, for Financial Aid reasons. Several years ago we had several people who “took the money and ran” and we were as much as informed if we didn’t keep records on a monthly basis, we’d have to report attendance daily.

            Another case of the responsible people being punished for the actions of the irresponsible. I do not take attendance on days when it is icy or I know there is a big accident on one of the roads into town, but otherwise I do. And I deal with ALLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL the requests for excused absences. I grant them for illness, child illness, work emergency, bereavement, but other reasons (“I want to wait in line for the new iPhone,”), sorry.

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            • Ha. Yeah, I’m dealing with that right now. It’s one of those federal “Title #” things.

              (I wanted to say Title “X”; but there really is a Title X; there certainly is a Title IX. I don’t think there is a Title #, which as we know I mean, Title, hypothetical symbol to represent, “by way of example.”)

              When those funds get audited, if colleges can’t prove their cases, they have to pay the $ back. Another thing that keeps us and administrators busy, navigating the maze.

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              • It’s just another thing no one told me about back around 1990 when I decided this was going to be my eventual career path. I might have, I don’t know, lived in a tent and ate beans for the rest of my life while working for the Nature Conservancy had I known the sheer level of paper-pushing and people-wrangling this career entails.

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            • Yuuup. They’re called “ghost students”–if we don’t report no shows during the first two weeks the school can be held responsible for financial aid. And for any student who fails, we have to record their last date of attendance.

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  2. One pile is those that have higher ed. degrees; the other pile is those that don’t. And they throw those that don’t into the trash.

    The obvious heart of the issue, one that has been identified time and again. It’s really starting to sound like everyone is saying the same thing; “I don’t have a solution, but I admire the hell out of the problem.”

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    • I think there are proposed solutions. However whether they will work and who gives it to us? … that’s what we don’t know.

      For instance, Isaac Moorehouse has one, that would put a lot of us in academia out of jobs. It’s basically, yes, Caplan is right that college is valuable because of sorting/signalling/credentialing and I have a mechanism that can sort and signal you that is much much cheaper than college.

      Peter Thiel is certainly looking to break the system. I’d watch out for him and the projects he funds.

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        • The system is changed when smart but not genius kids can skip college and make good livings.

          Technical Certifications… but I have to admit, I don’t know off hand what the name of the “I really do have tallent” cert is in my own field, and I give technical interviews.

          If I don’t know what to screen for on a resume other than “experience” or “college-stuff” then I can’t expect HR to do so. Our solution for “HR is mis-screening people” is to have engineers on the cattle-call line.

          However the line itself is on some University somewhere, granted, these mass events are open to the public so anyone can go, but it’s rare to see non-students.

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          • In programming, the obvious thing is to contribute to open source projects. You can demonstrate both ability and achievement, and you don’t need any credentials to get started: just start sending in fixes.

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    • I think part of the problem is a degree has become a de-facto signal of “this person can at least see one thing through to completion and demonstrate some minimal level of responsibility” but that’s an expensive way to find it out. (And also, increasingly – I have students I shudder to think of unleashing on the working world. Just a few, but still).

      I don’t know what the answer is. I’d say “even more rules about probationary employment to protect the employer” so they could let someone go who is just spectacularly irresponsible, but that would probably lead to abuses on the part of the employer, I don’t know.

      I also like to imagine a nation where critical thinking and deep reading and logical reasoning are common, but it does seem that (a) a lot of the schools have given up on that and (b) it doesn’t seem to be valued. And yeah, there never WAS a golden age, and in the past, fewer and more privileged people went to college but….I don’t know. I don’t want to live in a nation full of people whose aspiration is to be like the crassest, most grabby, and most-willing-to-bend-the-rules real estate developer….

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      • I also like to imagine a nation where critical thinking and deep reading and logical reasoning are common,….

        To me, critical thinking doesn’t necessarily track well with college education.I strongly suspect that most people learn to think critically and do think critically, whether they go to college or not.

        It’s possible that college teaches one to think *more* critically more often and perhaps about things they wouldn’t have thought critically about. There are many, many things about which my assumptions would not have been challenged had I not gone to college. And college does require us to exercise the “deep reading” you mention, or at least “deep reading” of different kinds of texts from what non college educated persons are likely to “deep read” about.

        Even so, I’m not sure how much of a claim I’d like to stake for college’s special role as an incubator of critical thinking. I’ve known many* college educated people who decline very often* to think critically or logically about things and who don’t offer anything like deep readings to the cultural and political texts they discuss. I’ve known many* non-college educated people who do. And I’ve known many,* many* more (college-educated and non-college-educated) who fall somewhere in between.

        Again, I’m not denying that college, especially at its best, can cultivate the kind of critical thinking skills you mention–and can probably do so in a way that one doesn’t (or is likely not to) cultivate without college. I just want to place myself as ambivalent about how strong the connection is.

        *By which I mean, “more than one but a number indeterminate enough that I can deny any responsibility to prove what I’m saying.”

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      • this person can at least see one thing through to completion and demonstrate some minimal level of responsibility

        Of course, it wasn’t always expensive, and doesn’t have to be. As I said down thread somewhere, military service sends a similar signal. If we can’t bring the cost of college down to reasonable levels, we need to figure out how to create alternates paths to achieve that signal.

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        • If we can’t bring the cost of college down to reasonable levels, we need to figure out how to create alternates paths to achieve that signal.

          Community College. Seriously cheaper, typically good classes, more limited in degrees offered but you can take two years, get the fluff classes out of the way, and then transfer to something higher up the food chain for the last two if your degree needs to be there.

          One of the weird things about this situation is there’s a ton of people who aren’t making any kind of cost/benefit evaluation. Go to college, take as much in loans as they’ll give, take any degree at all, and then be shocked when that degree doesn’t impress employers.

          There’s also a lack of awareness that the bank/college’s interests do not align with the student’s. Or in short, there is a lot of fiscal ignorance and naivety. Predatory fraudulent colleges is a problem, but there’s also a problem in high level, supposedly reputable, colleges creating graduates with degree “X” when there’s no market for it.

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    • We did talk about this before. And I think it was Jason Kuznicki who noted college is arguably more of a consumption good. It’s perhaps a hybrid; it serves different functions to different people.

      We worry about the “opportunity costs” of what folks could be doing between 18-22 instead of getting the bachelor’s. But that ignores the fact that many of us don’t want to be productive utilitarians during that time in our lives. But we also don’t want to saddle ourselves with unwise debt during that time either, that haunts us during the later periods when we do act more like productive utilitarians.

      And certainly if you need the bachelor’s (and/or other degrees) during those later time periods, those folks need more cost effective mechanisms in order to obtain the needed credential.

      So my solution would be to offer different tracks for different folks. If you want the brick and mortar, dorm room bull sessions, you should have that opportunity. If you want something that is just as valued, but that you can get much quicker, at a much lower cost, you should that option as well.

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      • I think the fact that education serves different purposes to different people is closest to the truth. This is not always class-based.

        I grew up in an upper-middle class town where the overwhelming number of adult residents and university educations or higher (lots of lawyers and doctors). Most of my classmates went to college or higher as well. I was the weirdo who decided to major in theatre at a small liberal-arts college. Plenty of people knew they were going to law school or medical school at high school graduation. Others picked more business oriented majors and went to larger universities. Others went into advanced STEM and/or academics.

        Caplan is not going to end higher-education. My worry is that he is going to create even more of a push for practical higher-ed than a higher-education filled with truly academic types. Another really big concern is that academically or artistically-minded but economically modest or poor kids will find themselves pushed out of college and university under the Caplan plan.

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          • True but I think it will be even more of a case under Caplan. Right now there are still lots of students of modest means who end up at university. Some need to take out lots of loans (which is horrible), some get luck and get generous scholarships.

            But I think under any of the reform plans (which I’ve noticed are usually supported by right-leaning libertarians and/or people who sometimes or often align with the white and white and rural class in my observation). I think you will see more people of color and also working-class whites just jampacked into the vocational system.

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              • Could that not be said of most occupations? The apprentice system in the United States has been supplanted by a college degree. I’ll bet most employers are happy to not bear the expense of training.

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              • 1. It always has been. There have always been art academies, conservatories, etc. Most artists that anyone can mention had some or a lot of formal art education. There are outsider artists who make it big without formal education but they are few and far between.

                2. The oldest art schools as connected to formal universities happened during the 1800s to early 1900s.

                3. I’m not that convinced by arguments on the return of the amateur scholar/gentleperson scholar. I think knowledge in all fields is too far advanced for this return including in methodology for the arts and humanities.

                4. There is still a serious issue where I see most of the arguments against college being made on very race-based lines which never seem to get discussed. I find it interesting that it seems to be mainly (if not exclusively) white people who advocate for radically curtailing and/or eliminating higher education. I’ve yet to see similar arguments made by people of color.

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                • I think Oscar is asking something more or along the lines of why can’t fine art training be more along the lines of how we train auto mechanics and barbers when he says it can be vocational. He isn’t arguing for gutting fine art education, just detaching it from university.

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                • Lee has the right idea. A lot of art is technique, which means a practiced skill, which is vocational. I see lots of VocTech schools offer training in Graphic Design, CGI, and similar. I’m sure painting, sculpting, music, etc can enjoy a similar treatment.

                  The university path with regard to art is more esoteric (history, theory, appreciation). Important, yes, but not a necessary part of a persons training to allow them to create art.

                  Oftentimes, it’s OK to learn the skills first, and the esoteric bits later. I was a draftsman and a mechanic before I was an engineer. Having those skills and experiences helped me in college.

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                  • There are plenty of independent art schools (non and for-profit) in the United States. Some of these are outright scams like the Arts Institute.*

                    I guess I am just not seeing the unwinding. Yale founded their art school in 1869.

                    *This is a real estate scam/holding company masquerading as a non-profit. They tend to exploit the rich or the poor and gullible. Most (if not all) of the professors are adjuncts scraping by.

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                    • So, scammy places aside (and seriously, we need to be better about letting people know those are scammy places), your low income artists do have affordable paths to at least the basic training for their chosen profession.

                      Even under what Caplan envisions, there will be fine arts degrees from reputable and prestigious universities. But there would also be more/better paths for kids to get the education and training they need, and the signals they need, to get started without having to plunk down a mortgage.

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        • Under the Caplan plan, my mom probably would have wound up a farmwife instead of a botanist with a Ph.D. who did research and taught college. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a farmwife but I don’t think that’s what my mom would have wanted.

          She was the first in her family to go to college (I’ve mentioned that before). And a lot of my current students are also first-gen. There are a lot of challenges in teaching first-gen people but man is it sweet when (for example) they become a dentist and go back to serve their old hometown. (Like half of our students are first-generation, and some of them are from families making less than $25K – or so I have been told). So I’m not sure Caplan is already in practice everywhere.

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      • Well we do, kinda. Military service is seen, by many, as an equivalent signal. It’s not as universal as a degree, but it helps.

        Of course, military service is limited to those who are physically and mentally able to hack it, beyond the educational parts.

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  3. I’ve not read Caplan on this topic, but several years ago I read a few studies from University of Amsterdam which were the start of an attempt to evaluate the different theories of education. On the one hand, they identified social signalling as one theory (which I take is Caplan’s), and on the other end, obtaining skills. As I recall, they were attempting to quantify the degree to which these could be identified with the initial suggestion that England was more social signaling and Germany was more skills-oriented, relative to each other. So, while I think social-signaling is certainly part of the value received for higher education, I tend to think it is going to depend upon the school and course of study, with academia the most likely place for that to exist, probably law also.

    Between those two extremes though, there was some other theories. One was that higher education didn’t teach a skill, except for ability to learn. Being able to read Beowulf in Old English is not a valued skill outside of demonstrating the ability to learn a job, which may have changing requirements. But this theory was closely related to positional good theories, since a general skill (ability to learn) untethered to job specific skills will end up favoring relative comparisons based upon school reputation, course of study and grades. Positional goods pose problems of costly and wasteful arms races. We shouldn’t subsidize them.

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  4. I’m always stuck on the question: “What is the point of college?”

    If the point of college is to demonstrate that you will not be a waste of effort for On The Job Training by your first “real” employer, then it’s possible to do a real cost/benefit analysis.

    If the point of college is to be a well-rounded person who is capable of writing a program, writing a sonnet, changing a diaper, changing a tire, appreciating a double-play, and appreciating a symphony…

    Well, is that worth $25,000 a year? I mean, a lot of those things are achievable without spending $25,000 a year.

    If it turns out that the main thing that college is doing is signaling, well, can we look at how we used to signal in the old days back when college debt could be paid off over the summer? (“Yeah. It eventually resulted in stuff that included Griggs v. Duke Power Co.” “What? Let me read that. Oh. You’re bringing *THAT* into it, are you?” “The old days were complicated.”)

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  5. Steven the Entrepreneur and other exceptional case scenarios aren’t really good examples of why college education isn’t necessary. As you noted, he worked really far down the employment latter until the opportunity came at 40 to make more money. For the vast majority of people, they never come close to having any opportunity half or even a quarter as good as Steven’s opportunity. Its easier to make a lot of money by studying hard in high school and getting into a prestigious university and maybe graduate school and get a brass ring job. The latter path is easier and more common than Steven’s path. Extreme case scenarios are not a good way to formulate policy.

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    • Its easier to make a lot of money by studying hard in high school and getting into a prestigious university and maybe graduate school and get a brass ring job. The latter path is easier and more common than Steven’s path.

      There’s a potential contradiction embedded in what you just said, illustrated, I think, by the parts I’ve bolded. I realize you’re not arguing that it’s “easy” to get into a prestigious school, just that it’s “easier” to get rich by doing so than it is to get rich by Steven’s path. Still and even so….that leaves out the people who can’t be Steven and who can’t get into a “prestigious” school (because if enough people get into that school it won’t be “prestigious” anymore). The question is, what to do about them?

      I don’t really know the answer.

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      • Maybe “easier” in the sense of “you don’t spend 20 years of your working life literally or figuratively shoveling crap before you get a desirable job”?

        I worked hard in high school, got into a moderately prestigious university, got into a somewhat well-thought-of grad school, completed an advanced degree, went to work teaching college straight of of grad school. And while teaching college is NOT the paradise I had hoped it would be, neither do I have to deal with literal crap very often*

        (*Took students out to do field sampling yesterday near a horseback riding trail, heard many complaints about the horse poo, which I don’t even NOTICE now.)

        I feel like my path was easier – at least for me – than being a salarywoman at a corporation and enduring 20 years of getting coffee and maybe being leered at and having to work on Sundays sometimes until I FINALLY claw my way to manager. Or easier than flipping houses. Or easier than starting out as a sous-chef, and slowly rising up to be restaurant manager….

        (Then again: I did largely sacrifice a social life which is why I’m nearly 50 and never-married and never even dated that much. I guess you have to pick what you lose out on in this life.)

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        • * on poo.

          The manure of ruminants on pasture is a delightfully earthy smell…so much so that it (the smell) has positive connotations in wine tasting… its the poop of carnivores that stinks no matter where it is.

          Cat pee, strangely, makes the cross-over to wine tasting as a desirable trait in Loire style Sauvignon Blanc. It is going out of fashion with wine tasters who are now trying to substitute “asparagus and minerals” which is an insult to cat pee in my experience.

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          • Yeah, herbivore poo doesn’t bother me at all, and I’m always surprised when students (many of our students come from rural backgrounds) are unhappy to encounter it.

            Pig poo, on the other hand – that’s a nope. Or the pile of random human poo we sometimes come across (There’s hiking and fishing in these areas, and not pit toilets, so I guess some folks just figure “on the trail is fair game”?)

            Dog poo also offends me, but that’s mostly when people walk their dogs in my yard (or in the yard around my building on campus) and don’t bag their dog’s waste.

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  6. Job descriptions and applications: Most big companies I’ve seen job postings for say the equivalent: X number of years experience and a bachelors degree OR Y numbers of years (less than X) plus a master’s degree–for the same job. Hey, a BS in Finance and a Masters or MBA are nice, but coming into a company with no job experience means the BS guy is going to be titled at “junior financial analyst” while the guy with a Masters will be titled “financial analyst”. There may be a pay delta of 10-15k. Both, without experience, are effectively useless for 3-4 months while they learn the ropes.

    As others have asked “what’s the purpose of education”. I’m of the opinion that college should be either for getting the education/skills to do your preferred work in the future while getting some general cultural appreciation for stuff OR getting some general well roundness–but a lot of that can be done outside of college, so I question the need for someone to pay 100k to major in Literature or the Theater Arts-i’d think you could learn that cheaper going to a program more focused on that then a general university degree. Meh, as long as i’m not asked to bail out someone’s foolish student debt I don’t care one way or another much.

    There are a lot of people who have the savvy, intelligence, and drive, and hustle to become successful without college. Hell, I once met a guide who crossed the border with him Mom at a young age and was very successful guiding elk hunters on their hunts. He knew his stuff, followed the herds, picked up antler sheds in the off season for sale to collectors and furniture makers, etc., all the while doing what he loved. That’s “success” by my definition.

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  7. The following web site shows alternatives for welding: https://www.frontrange.edu/programs-and-courses/a-z-program-list/welding-technology You can get a comprehensive welding certificate for 33 credits and 3 semseters or an AA for 60 and 4 semesters Comparing the two programs the base courses in welding are identical between the two programs, The AA ads some 8 hours of welding electives as well as the equivalent of 1 semester of general ed. The question might well be raised is how much value do the general ed courses provide (communication, english, math, physical science and a general elective 16 hours)

    The question really is in particular if you assume the person also took some of the elective welding courses, does the general ed requirement make the person a better welder.

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    • My guess would be that the math and physical science might help some of them do it better, and the communication, english, and math might help them manage the business side of their job better (whether they are self-employed, working for someone, or managing other people). Maybe. Depending on what they’d already learned on their own or not, what other education they’d had, and how good the community college classes involved were.

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      • It is also the case, of course, that people could want both a welding certificate and to learn stuff for the sake of learning stuff (and or in order to eventually go to college and learn more stuff, part time, affording it by being a welder as a day job). Front Range is a community college, after all. And a decent one from what I’ve heard. They’re not supposed to NOT be interested in teaching people things other than their exact job skills.

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        • Actually that suggests getting the welding certificate first and then if the credits can also be applied to the AA go for it later. Note that there are a number of schools including Ohio State that offer Bachelors degree in Welding engineering. More perhaps concerned with how welding is done and inspected than actually welding.

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          • Not if most of the courses are, as mentioned, practically useful to their employment as a welder. Also, front range is a community college. those courses are *cheap*. So at this point you’re basically dictating to someone how they should choose to learn and in what order? for why?

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            • Getting the certificate first ups their income sooner rather than waiting the additional semester for the AS. Just figuring get the income bump up sooner. (I suspect the certificate is worth more than the associates degree to the employeer.

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    • I had a friend do a two year welding program as part of his mid-life career change. While he bitched about the kids in the gen ed class being wide-eyed idealists, he found the classes valuable for reasons suggests. He was able to refine his communication skills a lot, and the math and science requirements were relevant to the program (shop and business math, and the science was physics and chemistry – which are both directly related to metallurgy).

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  8. Relevant to the topic is this article in Forbes about how bad it is that a University is discontinuing Liberal Arts programs/classes, especially in lieu of more ‘career oriented classes’. Now I can’t speak to the other campuses mentioned in the essay, but the campus he uses as his prime example is UW-Stevens Point, and the author is either unaware of UW-SPs role, or has decided not to inform his audience of it.

    The University of Wisconsin system has one flagship campus (Madison) and a number of satellite campuses of varying size and quality. The satellites serve to both take pressure off Madison by allowing students alternative places to earn an education, or they exist to prepare students for a University program (often working in tandem with the Wisconsin Technical Colleges System). UW-Milwaukee, for instance, is a University in it’s own right, offering well developed programs. UW-Sheboygan, on the other hand, is basically a feeder school, letting students take care of the first two years of school at a smaller campus before heading to one of the larger campuses.

    Within the system, various campuses have earned ‘nicknames’ such as UW-Stout (When in doubt, go to Stout!), or UW-Stevens Point (UW-What’s The Point?). UW-SP was intended to be a full college campus (a smaller UW-Milwaukee, so to speak). But Stevens Point is smack dab in the middle of the state, with nothing terribly interesting for many miles around (my sister went to UW-SP, and I used to visit her often, it’s not a happening place, never has been) unless you are interested in ancient Native American sites, agriculture, or studying the geology/geography of the area (the glaciers did interesting things all over WI). There is one Interstate in, and the rest of the highways are small, single lane roads. Winters are fecking brutal (unless you enjoy cross country skiing or snowmobiling, winter will suck), and the economy is pretty stagnant.

    In short, people aren’t really lining up to attend UW-SP for it’s world renowned academic programs, they are there to get enough of an education to either make a go of it in the local economy, or get out of that economy altogether. Thus UW-SP is effectively a feeder school/Technical College, even if it once had higher aspirations. This isn’t Madison or Milwaukee gutting it’s Liberal Arts programs. Cutting out programs that have poor attendance is just the campus accepting it’s reality, even if it doesn’t like it (although the author is right in that Gov. Walker is not helping things either, the man had a chance to use a scalpel and choose the machete instead).

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