The Sheepskin Nightmare
By Bryan Caplan
Have you ever dreamed that you’re suddenly one class, credit, final exam, or semester short of graduation? Many people, myself included, have this recurring nightmare. There a whole reddit on it. A typical case:
I’ve had this kind of dream very frequently over the past several years.
Even though I graduated college 10 years ago, I dream that I’m back in
college but not the one
I went to (oftentimes several credits short of graduating) and
begrudgingly have to do one more year or semester, and feel very
disappointed. In my dream I’m back in school at my current age, with
kids who are at least 10 years younger and I feel uncomfortable.
In contrast, I’ve never ever heard of someone dreaming about suddenly forgetting whatever job skills they learned in school.
How should we interpret these stylized facts about the dream world? Most plausibly: Belief in the sheepskin effect is extremely deeply rooted. When you’re stuck in this nightmare, you’re often confused by the discovery that you failed to cross the educational finish law. But the idea that failing to cross the educational finish line has dire consequences doesn’t confuse you at all. Whether awake or asleep, you take the power of the sheepskin effect for granted (unless, like many labor economists, you’re struggling to talk yourself out of the obvious).
Furthermore, people also have a deeply rooted belief that crossing educational finish lines has a big effect on employability but little effect on job skills. The nightmare isn’t that you suddenly can’t do your job. The nightmare is that you’re the same person you were yesterday, but society throws you into limbo because your papers aren’t in order.
Dream evidence is obviously easy to dismiss. Human capital purists may even say I’m desperately grasping at straws. But these reactions strike me as dogmatic. At minimum, sheepskin nightmares highlight the fact that educated humans, no matter how competent, have pronounced anxiety about their official educational status. Why would they have this anxiety if they firmly believe that competence, not credentials, rule the social world?