Two Comments on Coy
By Bryan Caplan
1. Narrow point. Coy writes:
Notice that this signal has nothing to do with what he or she may have
learned. The signal to employers–of diligence, persistence, and
conformity–is just as strong whether the applicant studies Sanskrit or
Yes, you can signal diligence and persistence by studying anything. But you can’t signal conformity by signaling anything! To signal conformity, you have to study what’s expected and valued in your culture – or sub-culture. That’s why students still can’t safely substitute a computer language for Spanish, French, or Latin (!).
2. Broad point. Coy again:
Caplan’s solution–slashing public support for public education–is what’s
problematic. He argues that if subsidies were taken away, poor youths
who couldn’t afford college would be unharmed, because employers would
begin to view a diploma as a signal of family money, not brains. Maybe.
But those strivers would also be deprived of the human capital that
college builds–which even Caplan estimates at a fifth of the value of a
degree and some other economists say is substantially higher. In a 2015
column for the Hechinger Report, an education website, Andre Perry, a
fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes that the cliché “college
isn’t for everyone” is code for “those people aren’t smart enough for
In my book, I blame ubiquitous global support for education on Social Desirability Bias. Human beings like saying – and believing – whatever sounds good, even if what sounds good makes little sense. My question for Coy: If deleting 80% of the perceived social rewards of education makes you no more willing to cut public support for public education, what would? What if we deleted 90% of education’s perceived social rewards? 95% 99%? I know it sounds nice to say, “If it helps one person, it’s worth it,” but that’s crazy. No one spends their own money so casually – nor should they. Furthermore, you can easily use some of the budgetary savings to help “strivers” in more cost-effective ways. So why not?
The Andre Perry line is likewise steeped in Social Desirability Bias. If I wanted to join the NBA, an honest assessment would be, “You lack the necessary height, endurance, dexterity, background, and drive.” So what’s so awful about saying that some people aren’t smart enough for college? Sure, if you want to seem nice, you’ll tell everyone they can do anything they set their minds to. But if you want to actually be nice, you’ll tactfully try to match people’s goals with their aptitudes.