What’s College For, Anyway?

19 Jun

The Quintessential College Male Admittedly, this semester wrenching descent into the local university version of “Babysitting Robots and Brats” has caused me to downgrade my earlier idealistic memories of college. But, Noah Smith is on to something – and he also brings Japan (which sounds a lot like South Korea) into the mix.

Some people think college is about signaling, not about building human capital. I’d say most economists believe this. But what exactly do they think is being signaled?

Intelligence? No, that doesn’t make sense. It’s way too easy to tell who’s smart. To signal general intelligence, all you need to do is take some tests – AP tests and SAT 2’s if you’re trying to signal moderate intelligence, International Math Olympiad if you’re trying to signal exceptional mathematical intelligence, and so on. You don’t need 4 years at an elite school to show you can do some math problems or memorize some stuff.

In fact, in Japan, most employment decisions are based on exactly this sort of signal. High school students who want good careers spend all of high school studying for some really long college entrance exams, and employers basically pick the students who get the best scores on these exams. Yes, colleges also make their decisions based on those same exams. But Japanese college basically provides zero additional signal, because A) Japanese college kids do very little work, and B) Japanese employers don’t even look at college grades. Whatever Japanese people’s reason is for going to college, it isn’t for signaling intelligence. No reason America should be any different.

So what else could people be signaling at college? The ability to do hard work in the face of massive leisure temptation? I actually think this is a reasonably big deal, especially in the U.S. If college performance is a signal, it’s a signal of people’s desire to study when they could be partying. (Update: Here’s a signaling defender who agrees.)


Now, this could indicate that college is actually about consumption. Well, to some degree, it is; college is fun. But people tend to smooth consumption, and college is all concentrated at one time, so it doesn’t make sense that college would be mostly about consumption.

This leaves human capital. Economists (including at least one in my PhD graduating class) have often tried to show that college doesn’t produce useful skills. But I think that this is missing the point; useful skills, which you mostly learn on the job, are not the only valuable form of human capital. 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.

At this point, Smith and Conor Friedersdorf pick up the conversation.

According to Smith, college is where we meet the people who will motivate us now that Mommy and Daddy have mortgaged their futures for us and where we meet inspiring peers and learn about the larger world.

College is useless as a mechanism for signaling intelligence. It’s probably somewhat useful for signaling the ability to work hard and resist temptation, at least in the U.S. where many colleges require hard work (but not in Japan). It is about consumption, but it’s too concentrated in time to be mostly about consumption. College is really about human capital, of the kind not conveyed in classes – motivation, perspective, and networking. Rather than a hideously, inefficiently expensive signaling mechanism, college is an ingenious technology for building the kinds of human capital that are scarce among smart people in rich countries.

I would compare South Korea and Japan, and agree, that it’s mostly about networking a nd “signalling” that one is ready to join a clique. The intelligence part is pretty much a lie based on a bell curve.

I recall when my peer group assembled, to take SATs, I was the only one not hung over. I had no problem with GRE’s or the Feds’ language aptitude battery (need I even mention the ASVAB!) My problem was, and is, that I entered college with a mindset, that it was a reprieve from my family and the beginning of an adventure to which I would call an end when I decided it was over. I was intent on hoovering up any information I could, from anyone, but I had no intent to add another dysfunctional allegiance to the one I was trying to flee. I am still that loner.

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