My Interview with Princeton University Press
By Bryan Caplan
The “signaling model of education” is the foundation of your argument. What is this model?
The standard view of education, often called the “human capital
model,” says that education raises income by training students for their
future jobs. The signaling model, in contrast, says that education
raises income by certifying students for their future jobs.
Doing well in school is a great way to convince employers that you’re
smart, hard-working, and conformist. Once they’re convinced, career
rewards naturally follow.
Could you give an analogy?
Sure. There are two ways to raise the value of a diamond. One is to
hand it to an expert gem smith so he can beautifully cut the stone. The
other is to hand it to a reputable appraiser with a high-powered
eyepiece so he can certify the pre-existing excellence of the stone. The first story is like human capital; the second story is like signaling.
Is it really either/or?
Of course not. The human capital and signaling models both explain
part of education’s career benefits. But I say signaling is at least
half the story–and probably more.
In 2001, Michael Spence won a Nobel Prize for his work on
educational signaling. Can the idea really be so neglected? What is
your value-added here?
Signaling enjoys high status in pure economic theory. But most
empirical labor and education economists are dismissive. Either they
ignore signaling, cursorily acknowledge it in a throw-away footnote, or
hastily conclude it’s quantitatively trivial. My book argues that
there’s overwhelming evidence that signaling is a mighty force in the
real world. There’s strong evidence inside of economics–and even
stronger evidence in educational psychology, sociology of education, and
education research. And finally, signaling has abundant support from
Given today’s political climate, who do you think will be most receptive to your message? The most hostile?
Support for education is bipartisan. Most people, regardless of
party, favor more and better education. It’s no accident that both
Bushes wanted to be known as “education presidents.” That said, I think
my biggest supporters will be pragmatists and fiscal hawks. And my
biggest opponents will be ideological fans of education and fiscal
doves. Most progressives will probably dislike my book, but they really
shouldn’t. If you care about social justice, you should be looking for
reforms that help people get good jobs without fancy degrees.
You’re a full professor at George Mason and a Princeton Ph.D.
How can you of all people possibly challenge the social value of
I see myself as a whistleblower. Personally, I’ve got nothing to
complain about; the education system has given me a dream job for life.
However, when I look around, I see a huge waste of students’ time and
taxpayers’ money. If I don’t let them know their time and money’s being
misspent, who will? And if I wasn’t a professor, who would take me