Charles Murray's Solution to Signaling
By Bryan Caplan
Outside a handful of majors — engineering and some of the sciences — a bachelor’s degree tells an employer nothing except that the applicant has a certain amount of intellectual ability and perseverance. Even a degree in a vocational major like business administration can mean anything from a solid base of knowledge to four years of barely remembered gut courses.
My main quibble is that Murray doesn’t consider why our wasteful educational system is so stable – and delivers such high financial rewards to successful students. There’s even one sentence in the essay – “We will attach an economic reward to it that seldom has anything to do with what has been learned”- where Murray seems to say that employers collectively choose to overpay college grads. In an economy with millions of employers, that’s crazy. (I’m not saying Murray believes in this bizarre conspiracy, just that it’s easy to misinterpret him in this way).
So how can we explain the stability and pay-off of our inefficient educational system? My best guess is that educational success doesn’t just signal brains and work ethic; it also signals conformity. A kid with the brains and work ethic to excel at MIT would be foolish to go to the University of Phoenix. Why? Because prospective employers would say, “What’s wrong with this kid?” So I’m not optimistic about Murray’s fix:
The solution is not better degrees, but no degrees. Young people entering the job market should have a known, trusted measure of their qualifications they can carry into job interviews. That measure should express what they know, not where they learned it or how long it took them. They need a certification, not a degree.
Admittedly, Murray does describe a plausible scenario in which certification stops being “weird”:
If a high-profile testing company such as the Educational Testing Service were to reach a strategic decision to create definitive certification tests, it could coordinate with major employers, professional groups and nontraditional universities to make its tests the gold standard. A handful of key decisions could produce a tipping effect. Imagine if Microsoft announced it would henceforth require scores on a certain battery of certification tests from all of its programming applicants. Scores on that battery would acquire instant credibility for programming job applicants throughout the industry.
In the end, though, I’m not optimistic. Unless government slashes its subsidy to education, I think the status quo will endure.
Hopefully I’m wrong.