Why over consumption of higher education is a bad thing…….

I have been working too much overtime to keep up with my favorite blogs. But I did manage to catch the post by Tyler Cowen on Bryan Caplan’s summarization of his next book. The post kept my mind occupied during a long night of plowing snow. Two lines from the post in particular stuck in my mind. This line……

This will be a good popular book, but I don’t yet understand Bryan’s attack on education.

And this line….

I view the contemporary higher education story as “more value” and “more waste” coming together.

The reason Cowen’s short post on a book that is not even finished yet caught my attention is because I have wrestled long and hard on a personal level with the value of education (In particular, the value of higher education). As might be guessed from my earlier posts, I don’t hold with Cowen’s view of education.

To do justice to my thoughts, I should write a proper essay. But I fear that overtime and other constraints are going to prevent that. Yet it seems a shame to devote so much thought to a post without throwing up at least some kind of response. So here goes a slap dash response shorn of any supporting facts and figures…..

In any discussion of the value of higher education, we must define what “value” means. For example, I would almost certainly be making a lot more money if I had gone to college. But would society as a whole have benefited?

I would argue that the answer to that question is almost certainly no.

The main reason I would have made a lot more money is because the government would have heavily subsidized the extent of my education. If I had to bear the true cost of my education, it would be questionable whether I would truly make more money by going to college. This is especially true if you factor in opportunity cost.

If you doubt that, ask yourself what would happen if the government stopped subsidizing higher education. A lot less people would be going to college, don’t you think? And why would that be?

Don’t try to tell me it is because poor people will not be able to afford to go to college. If a college education truly leads to greater income after opportunity costs and the like, private lenders should be more than happy to lend the money. If you doubt the historic validity of the idea that private lenders would pay for college, answer this question: has the advent of subsidized education led to more equality in income?

If anything, the opposite has happened. At any rate, I see no evidence that vast numbers of poor people were held back economically by not being able to go to college before the advent of subsidized education. Yet who can doubt the number of people going to college has been greatly increased. Why hasn’t this increase in numbers of people going to college significantly increased income equality in this country?

The government is wasting a lot of money “educating” people in college.

But wasting money is only part of the story. If the government did not subsidize higher education, the signaling value of a college education would go way down. Currently, most people assume that you are either you are stupid or you are lazy if you don’t take the free money and go to college. But if higher education was not subsidized, I do not believe that people would rely on it as much for signaling purposes.

After all, in the past, people were more open to the idea that people without college could rise to high positions. It used to be common for people in executive level positions to lack an advanced degree. It was expected that a company would notice talent even if it did not come packaged with expensive signaling. I don’t think that companies have noticeably raised the quality of their executives by relying so heavily on higher education as a signaling mechanism.

But biggest area of disagreement between Cowen and I does not revolve around the straightforward calculation of economic return or its use in signaling. Rather, it revolves around Cowen’s idea that college makes you a better person. Or as Cowen phrases it….

We know the paradox. Education improves earnings but most formal schooling appears to be a waste of time. Many economists claim that education is mostly a means of signaling quality.

I view education as a self-commitment to being a more productive kind of person. Education is about self-acculturation.

Men are born beasts. But education gives you a peer group, a self-image, and some skills as well. Getting an education is like becoming a Marine. Men need to be made into Marines. By choosing many years of education, you are telling yourself that you stand on one side of the social divide. The education itself drums that truth into you.

Similarly, if you become a Mormon or a Protestant in Central America, your life prospects go up. It is not that Mormons have learned so much more, but rather they have a different sense of self. They have a positive self-image about their destiny in life and choose a different set of peers. They also choose not to drink.

The beasts model differs from classic signaling theory. If education is pure signaling, just give everyone a standardized test in seventh grade and then close up the schools. But the process of self-image formation, at least for most people, is far from complete at that point.

I agree with Cowen that higher education is about more than mere signaling. But I do not agree that self-acculturation in the college setting is always a good thing. In fact, I would argue that colleges often produce a type of self-acculturation that is harmful to society as a whole.
Unfortunately, as I look over at the clock, it appears that I do not have the time to make that argument tonight. Hopefully, I will get to it later. But if you want a general idea of where I am going to go, just consider Ecole Nationale d’Administration………….

3 Responses to “Why over consumption of higher education is a bad thing…….”

  1. […] _uacct = “UA-1202685-1”; urchinTracker(); Map of the Ethereal Land The Ethereal Voice Front Page – Politics – Money – Knowledge – Art – Food – Fun Masthead About Why over consumption of higher education is a bad thing……. By Ape Man | March 20, 2007 – 9:15 pm Posted in Category: Money I have been working too much overtime to keep up with my favorite blogs. But I did manage to catch the post by Tyler Cowen on Bryan Caplan’s summarization of his next book. The post still kept my mind occupied during a long night of plowing snow. Two lines from the post in particular stuck Click Here to continue reading. […]

  2. John says:

    please post more!

  3. Ape Man says:


    Do you want me to post more on this subject or just in general?

    Either way, I am afraid that this is going to be a slow month. As I said, I have been working a lot of overtime and it is cutting into the time that I have to blog. Being tired doesn’t help either…

    Anyway, if you wanted more in this subject, it will probably have to wait until this weekend. The post above was so slapdash that I could hardly stand to read it the next day. The issue is important enough to me (and I respect Tyler enough) that I would like to treat the issue more respectfully.

    Are you aware that I post stuff directly to the Ethereal Voice sometimes?

    I do this mostly when I see things of interest that I don’t want to write too much about. The post above this one was originally only going to appear in the Ethereal Voice but I cross posted it here. I am not very consistent about what I cross post and what I don’t. Or even were I post what….

    If you go over and take a look at the Voice you should know that a lot of these posts don’t appear on the Front page of the Voice. And they are mixed in with things that also appear on this blog. You have to click on the various categories on the top of the mast head to see them all.

    Also, there are other interesting people who write for the Voice….

    Thanks for commenting by the way.

    I am always half a mind to quit this blog. My essay site gives me satisfaction even if no one reads it. But I started this blog for interaction with what I read on the web. If I did not know that some people were reading it from the site meter, I would probably stop writing altogether.

    Ape Man

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