Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Charles Murray on Education

Charles Murray has a provocative column summarizing a recent book on why college is overvalued. As Murray puts it, hardly anyone would think the following is a good system, if designed from scratch:
First, we will set up a single goal to represent educational success, which will take four years to achieve no matter what is being taught. We will attach an economic reward to it that often has nothing to do with what has been learned. We will urge large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability to try to achieve the goal, wait until they have spent a lot of time and money, and then deny it to them. We will stigmatize everyone who doesn’t meet the goal. We will call the goal a “BA.”
In Murray's view, many if not most occupations do not really require 4 years of specialized study, and many people are neither inclined nor interested in 4 years of generalized education. Instead, it would be a better world if more businesses and occupations relied on certification tests that anyone could take, whether or not they had been certified by an official university.

Pedro Carneiro is the first respondent. Unfortunately, I suspect that much of his response is beside the point. From the start, Carneiro characterizes Murray as having argued that "for most people, completing a BA is a bad investment." But I don't see Murray as making that point at all. In fact, Murray began his essay with the explicit disclaimer that he was "not denying that that possession of a BA is statistically associated with higher income across the life span."

Carneiro then spends the majority of his essay explaining that people really do get positive economic returns from having gone to college. But this misses the framing issue that Murray hints at. In an era when fewer people went to college, as Murray points out, it was perfectly respectable to enter the workforce as a high school graduate. Now, to do so marks you as being in the bottom 20% or 30%. Thus, the issue should be framed as follows: it’s not that college has a high premium, it’s that failing to go to college has a stiff penalty.

To amplify on an analogy from Thomas Sowell, imagine that you are sitting in a football stadium in a crowd of 70,000 people, and that most of them stand up. The vast majority of people who are standing can see the game, while the few people still sitting down can't see anything other than the rear of the person in front of them. Carniero might say that there's a "premium" to standing up in a stadium rather than sitting down, and that it should therefore be our social policy to encourage everyone in all stadiums to stand up at all times. Murray, however, would say that sitting down creates a huge penalty when everyone else is standing up, and that the football game might be more enjoyable all around if most people would collectively sit down and take a rest.

Thus, it's wrong to ask rhetorically:
Do we really think that social pressure to get a BA, and misinformation about the value of a BA, will induce generations of youth (and their parents!) to systematically engage in bad education decisions? Why would they be doing that over and over again, if it was such a bad investment?
College isn't necessarily a bad investment for any given individual, any more than standing up at the football game is a bad investment when everyone else is standing up (and when sitting down means that you miss the game entirely). That conclusion says nothing about the overall rationality of a system in which everyone wastes their energy standing up even when they are all tired and would individually rather sit down.

Thus, Murray's point is systemic, not individual: regardless of whether any given individual benefits from going to college, it’s not good to have a world in which failing to go to college has a high penalty. There are many people out there who don't particularly care for classroom work, and it’s unjust to force them to spend several years and tuition money getting a degree just so they can have a credential to enter the workforce. In any event, given that Murray is basically identifying a collective action problem here, it's not responsive for Carneiro to point out that each individual's behavior is rational.



Blogger Bryan said...

But the system does respond, no? At least so far as non-technical degrees are concerned (and I don't think that Murray's argument works with many sorts of engineering degrees) schools themselves have shifted and become much more credentialing institutions as opposed to educational ones. I teach at a liberal arts college and every department emphasizes to prospective majors what one can "do" with the degree. This is why schools have watered down (or done away with entirely) core requirements and implicitly encouraged grade inflation. (Having high retention rates boosts your US News ranking; being a tough place that flunks kids out doesn't). What's more, schools have begun to emphasize internships and "engaged learning" (or "service learning"). It all seems to me a rational (if unfortunate) response to the fact that there are larger and larger proportions of students who go to college precisely because it is a good investment, not because it actually educates them.

11:25 PM  
Blogger Roger Sweeny said...

There are many people out there who don't particularly care for classroom work, and it’s unjust to force them to spend several years and tuition money getting a degree just so they can have a credential to enter the workforce.

It is becoming apparent that a significant majority of these people are male. Which makes the BA system a problem if you truly believe in "gender equity."

If, on the other hand, you believe that it's payback time, the gender inequality is a feature, not a bug.

8:58 AM  

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