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College a Consequence of a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy? March 24, 2011

Posted by federalist in Education.

Michael Robertson points out a logical flaw inherent in many of the studies and comments on the value of a college education: In a sense college is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you tell people they have to get a college degree to earn more, then those most motivated to earn more will go to college. That doesn’t necessarily mean that college has contributed to their subsequent performance or production abilities.

For example, imagine a world in which the formal education system ends with high school. Society might tell high school graduates that to get ahead in life they have to spend a year digging a hole by hand and then another year filling it back in. Employers might reasonably conclude that people who perform that ritual have demonstrated a level of diligence, motivation, and responsibility that is not manifest, if not utterly lacking, in those who haven’t spent two years digging a hole. Furthermore, the fact that a person could waste two years in a hole instead of earning money also suggests they come from a supportive and resourceful family, so they are likely to have been natured and nurtured to produce excess wealth. Hole graduates would then justifiably get preference over non-graduates in the job market, marriage market, and any other situation in which their skills and aptitude can’t otherwise be measured or verified.

Yes, I think in too many cases American “higher education” is a waste of time and resources.



1. federalist - March 30, 2011

From a book review by Eric Felten:

Three years ago an anonymous community-college writing instructor penned an essay in the Atlantic magazine decrying the pseudo-college degrees now required for a regular job. “I teach young men,” he wrote, “who must amass a certain number of credits before they can become police officers or state troopers, lower-echelon health-care workers who need credits to qualify for raises, and municipal employees who require college-level certification to advance at work.”

Does one really have to read “King Lear,” he wondered, to be qualified to write speeding tickets or draw blood? The idea that college is for everyone, he concluded, is a waste of time and money, not to mention a bewildering and exhausting experience for the often woefully unprepared students.

2. federalist - April 3, 2011

So maybe the hole-digging example isn’t too far off: Jonah Lehrer points out that performance tests are “maximal measures” which don’t do a good job of predicting long-term performance. They need to be combined with character-trait measures like “grit,” which can only be assessed over extended periods. Like, perhaps, setting out to dig a hole for a year and actually doing it.

3. federalist - May 11, 2011

The Plight of the MBA Generation discusses how all these college-educated suits are dealing with the new reality of job insecurity.

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