A Puzzle for Human Capital Extremists
By Bryan Caplan
Suppose you believe whole-heartedly in the human capital theory of schooling. Appearances notwithstanding, everything that students study gives them additional marketable skills – at least probabilistically. I have a question for adherents of this position: Why do students rejoice whenever a teacher cancels class?
From 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?
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?
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.
So, human capital extremists, what gives? Do you deny that canceling class makes students happy? If not, how can you reconcile your theory with the facts?