A Puzzle for Human Capital Extremists Revisited
By Bryan Caplan
Why do students rejoice whenever a teacher cancels class?
a human capital standpoint, students’ attitude is baffling. They’ve
paid good money to acquire additional skills. Employers will judge
them by the skills their teachers impart. But when the students’ agent,
their teacher, unilaterally decides to teach them less without the
slightest prospect of a refund, the students cheer. How bizarre. Would
a contractor jump for joy when his roofers tell him they’re taking
short cuts on the shingles in order to go drinking?
In my original response I considered myopia as an explanation, but found it unconvincing:
A behavioral economist could say that the students are myopic; they’re
overly focused on short-run fun rather than long-run success. But much
of the appeal of human capital extremism is that it’s a fully rational
story of educational choice. Once you admit that students are myopic,
who knows what else you’ll have to admit?
I could have said the same about the subtly different “hyperbolic discounting” story. Only today, though, did a far stronger response to the myopia and hyperbolic discounting explanations dawn upon me.* Namely: If students’ problem were myopia or hyperbolic discounting, they wouldn’t wait for their professors to cancel class! They’d simply stop attending, enjoy short-run pleasure, and bemoan the long-run consequences.
If you’re a human capital extremist, you can’t start talking about the bad effects of cutting classes on a student’s relative class performance. Either you’re learning skills or you aren’t; where you stand in the grading curve should have no effect on how employers treat you down the line. Once you give the signaling model some credence, of course, the puzzle vanishes in a flash:
The signaling model of education has an even easier story: Students want
not knowledge, but certification. Future employers only see your grade
and diploma – and the less a professor teaches, the less students have
to learn to get the grade and diploma they want.
Of course, the human capital extremist could retreat to an even more ad hoc position. He could appeal to conformism, or deference to authority. He could even say that students cheer whenever a teacher cancels class because students falsely believe in the signaling model! But what’s the point? If you continue to dismiss the signaling model after two decades in school, I say you’re simply being contrary.
* My arguments works best for college students; compulsory attendance laws for K-12 education muddy the waters.