Roccia on The Case Against Education
By Bryan Caplan
Johnny Roccia poses one of the hardest challenges to The Case Against Education I’ve encountered. (Aside: The audiobook is now out!) I see it as a special case of a more general issue: Given the high anonymity of modern societies, why isn’t there vastly more lying?
Okay, so I just finished the book. First off – incredible. It went beyond even my very high expectations. But I can gush later, and I’m sure you’ve heard enough of that by now anyway.
But I have to share a thought that doesn’t seem to appear anywhere within those pages. A factor that you may have considered, but would be incredibly hard to research, I’d imagine.
So let’s say education is 80/20 signaling/capital. And the capital share really only comes into play once you HAVE the job, since it’s pretty hard to measure beforehand. So signaling is the primary metric by which you GET a job.
So… how many people do you think lie about having a degree?
Anecdotally: I know lots (a dozen+) adults who have long-standing, high-paying professional jobs that ostensibly “require” a degree. Those people do not have college degrees. They lied about that fact, got the job, and were perfectly capable of doing it so they kept it. I also know several high-school dropouts who are of the “smart but rebellious” variety, in similar positions.
My experience: Very few employers actually *check* to see if you have a college degree. NO ONE checks to see if you graduated high school. Graduating high school, in particular, is so standard that it’s just assumed, and therefore virtually no employer wastes the time/money/effort required to actually verify. And for those people that I personally know, I’d have never realized they didn’t graduate if they hadn’t told me. How would you even tell? I’ve been out of high school for 17 years, so I don’t have the mental means to grill someone on their experience.
If even 10% of people who claim to have a college degree are lying about it, how would that affect the numbers in your book? That *hugely* pushes the validity of the signaling model, but it’s got to be hard to research – how do you ask people if they’re lying about their degree?
If you search in the news, you can always find a few cases where some high-profile person was “outed” from a prominent position because it was revealed they lied about their credentials. (This seems absurd on the surface – if they’ve been doing the job for a decade, why does not having a degree suddenly disqualify them? Of course, learning new facts regarding their overall level of honesty can make you not want to continue employing them, but their basic competence is unchanged.) But those seem rare – and the result of some extenuating circumstances in each case. As long as you stick to jobs you can actually do, you’re usually fine.
My advice to job-seeking friends: If a job listing has “Bachelor’s in Engineering Required,” then you probably need one. If it just says “Bachelor’s degree required,” then go ahead and apply anyway – after all, if a degree in ANY major is equally good, then the job isn’t really looking for skills, just conformity and brains.
You say degrees are helpful because it’s hard to fake long-term conformity, but it’s really easy – you just fake having the degree.
So what explains employers’ lax enforcement of a signaling system they’re so invested in? Well, what if employers *ALREADY* recognize that education is mostly bunk, but Social Desirability Bias works on them, too? An employer that loudly claims “We don’t care about degrees!” looks weird, and then probably attracts only low-caliber applicants. How do you get around this? Say you require degrees, but then don’t check! That way, you get TWO classes of applicants – those with degrees, and those with the chutzpah to claim they do (and the confidence that they can do the job anyway!).
From my own experience: If I see a job I want that lists a degree as a requirement, I apply anyway. My resume in my career field is impressive, despite the lack of degree. I almost always get a callback, and get the job – the interviewer never even *asks* about my college. So employers use it as a filter, but don’t actually care about it. Social Desirability Bias, with a covert workaround.