Signaling Versus Educational Innovation
By Bryan Caplan
Tyler wants to use my little signaling model to predict the future of online education. At risk of looking a gift horse in the mouth, I’m afraid a much richer model is required to address Tyler’s question.
In the interest of parsimony, my model assumes that education is purely a signal of IQ; Tyler also considers a variant where education signals conscientiousness instead. So far, so good. But as I’ve said several times, in the real world education is also a signal of conformity. One of the main things a stack of degrees says about you is, “I uncomplainingly submit to social expectations.”
This makes educational innovation inherently difficult. Why? Because the first people to sign up for innovative alternatives to traditional education are usually people who have a beef with the powers that be. As I’ve told Arnold before:
[E]ducation doesn’t just signal intelligence and conscientiousness; it’s
also signals another character trait employers pragmatically cherish: conformity. This leaves us in a catch-22, because experimenting with new ways to signal conformity is a strong signal of… non-conformity!
You could of course reply, “All that’s going to change. The future is coming.” I’ll bet against it. In fact, I already have. It’s easy to imagine a society where traditional educational credentials could collapse at a moment’s notice. But that society is not ours.
Take out your sociological goggles and look around. In our society, smart, hard-working, conformist kids go to old-fashioned brick-and-mortar colleges. Their elders expect them to do so. Their peers expect them to do so. They feel like losers in their own eyes if they don’t go.
The normativity of conventional education isn’t a passing phase. College attendance is a central tenet of our society’s secular religion. A student who scoffs at all these expectations probably has a serious problem with authority. Would-be employers treat him accordingly.
There may well be a niche for online education. Maybe it will attract the best students who currently don’t go to college and the worst students who currently do: the top of the bottom plus the bottom of the top. But until we sharply reduce subsidies for traditional education, traditional education will continue to dominate, warts and all. Middle class jobs will no longer require college only after middle class kids can no longer afford college. Hail austerity!