Sorting v. teaching in universities


in Economics, Geek stuff, Teaching

Young people around the world spend tens of thousands of dollars and years of their lives getting university degrees. Partly, that is justified by the unique experience of being a university student. At the same time, it is argued that university confers lifelong benefits. I can think of three major ways in which that could happen:

  • Students learn about the things they are actually studying, whether that’s ancient Greek drama or engineering
  • Students learn skills in the process of studying, such as time management and interpersonal skills
  • Universities sort people: separating those who can handle the kind of competition they foster from those who cannot

While I think universities push the first argument hardest, it is the second and third that are most plausible. Most people only have a small amount of time to devote to sizing up a stranger. That is especially true of anybody who might hire you. What a university degree conveys in a small amount of space is that you have the skills required to get through that process. Rather than actually invest the time and effort to evaluate your capabilities, the person evaluating you can accept this information ‘as read’.

Perhaps one practical message to derive from this hypothesizing is that there are two sorts of university degrees that can be pursued. There is the minority subset where the actual information you learn is the most valuable thing. This includes fields like engineering, medicine, and accounting. Then there are those in which ‘soft skills’ and the sorting process are the principal value, at least from the perspective of employers.

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

. November 3, 2010 at 9:17 am

There Are 5,000 Janitors in the U.S. with PhDs

There are 18,000 parking lot attendants in the U.S. with college degrees. There are 5,000 janitors in the U.S. with PhDs. In all, some 17 million college-educated Americans have jobs that don’t require their level of education.

emily November 3, 2010 at 12:36 pm

The current university system needs to be modernized to the point where you’re not spending tens of thousands of dollars to learn things that enrich your life, but also put you (quite possibly) no further ahead in your career than a basic associates degree from a community college.

I think there needs to be a hybridization of trades skills and arts education in prominent Canadian universities. It’s ridiculous that we don’t mix the two in the arts, or at least, offer the chance to.

It’s not enough to say that in the end of a Bachelor’s what you get practically is that someone can look at a CV and say “gee whiz I guess they can make a powerpoint presentation and even make deadlines!”

Post degree depression is probably pretty well warranted. You’ve basically been put through the university wringer, emotionally, intellectually and financially for years upon years, and then you graduate and people will ask, innocently:

“Oh, you have an arts degree in X. What do you think you’ll do with that?”

and the answer is:

R.K. November 3, 2010 at 12:45 pm

In a way it is liberating that employers don’t care about the topic of your degree. It lets you study what interests you while sending them the signals they want.

It would be a shame if people who are most interested in history or literature were all forced to study commerce by the demands of the job market.

Tristan November 3, 2010 at 1:03 pm

It’s a bit depressing that this discussion is entirely framed around how to impress potential employers. Lincoln actually thought the major reason wage labour was better than slave labour is that under wage labour you were potentially free – meaning you could save up enough to work for yourself. And, it’s not obvious that he doesn’t have a point.

I really have no interest in working “for an employer” for the rest of my life. Sure, this is likely a necessary stage (and one hopefully mitigated by membership in a democratic union), but my goal is either to start a business or a cooperative, or to work in an existing cooperative with a democratic organizational structure. Tyrannical management is not only bad by definition, it also fails to maximize productivity – because people are actually motivated by autonomy, mastery and ability to exercise their creative capacity – not by financial incentives.

As I see it, the point of University is to grow as a person, and to develop those creative capacities which will serve you well in being a productive member of society. And, since we live in a highly advanced post-industrial society, knowledge skills are right at the top. The essential thing today is not to “know things”, but to know how to know things – to know how to learn what you need to know to accomplish certain tasks quickly and thoroughly – and then apply this know-how to the task at hand. It’s an essentially practical skill, like problem-solving in mechanics (where the books can only ever take you so far).

Milan November 3, 2010 at 1:08 pm


Thanks for the comment.

I think there needs to be a hybridization of trades skills and arts education in prominent Canadian universities. It’s ridiculous that we don’t mix the two in the arts, or at least, offer the chance to.

What would such an approach actually involve? Did you have any particular trades in mind? Also, if marketable skills students are acquiring are in carpentry or web design or accounting, what is the justification for the rest of their education?

I certainly think people ought to be able to study what interests them, though perhaps that is better seen as a kind of self-improving recreation, rather than an investment in one’s future prospects.

P.S. This earlier discussion on recession and the value of grad school touches upon many of the issues raised in this post and thread.

Milan November 3, 2010 at 1:14 pm


The essential thing today is not to “know things”, but to know how to know things – to know how to learn what you need to know to accomplish certain tasks quickly and thoroughly – and then apply this know-how to the task at hand.

This is what I meant by the ‘skills [learned] in the process of studying’ category. University does teach people how to manage their time, write, direct projects, etc.

There is also a sorting element at work here. There are some students who have these skills before arriving at university. For them, undergraduate education provides an opportunity to convey that information to employers.

my goal is either to start a business or a cooperative, or to work in an existing cooperative with a democratic organizational structure

For entrepreneurs, the most valuable thing about university might actually be the people who you meet. After all, if you are employing yourself, there is nobody to impress with credentials (except potential clients, if you do something like consulting). There are high-profile examples of people who dropped out of undergraduate programs to start businesses. That said, most of them probably got at least a bit of a boost through people who they met in school.

Milan November 3, 2010 at 1:15 pm

It would be a shame if people who are most interested in history or literature were all forced to study commerce by the demands of the job market.

I agree.

In fact, I think sometimes programs explicitly designed to lead to a certain profession provide worse preparation for the work than doing a degree in a different discipline would. For instance, teachers might be better off studying physics or history rather than education. Aspiring diplomats would almost certainly be better served by studying history than by the nebulous discipline of ‘international relations’.

Anon November 3, 2010 at 1:21 pm

One other major benefit from university is just getting a few years of life to yourself, between the parental domination and constant embarassment of high school and the grinding tedium of the working world.

It’s probably the freest time in the lives of those who go to university.

. November 3, 2010 at 1:55 pm

Before the Second World War, meritocracy, in today’s sense of elite selection through higher education, and opportunity, meaning the ordinary citizen’s way of getting ahead in the world, were two separate and unrelated concepts. Only a tiny segment of the population went to college, and — more to the point — higher education was not thought of as a gateway to financial success. (This country’s first formal meritocratic structure, the civil service, also was not perceived as the path to America’s lush rewards except, perhaps, by Irish-Americans, who viewed it, with some justice, as a plot to shut them out of government jobs.) Harvard, for example, was traditionally a place where rich men sent their sons to become gentlemen, not a place for poor boys hoping to become rich — a point memorably made by Benjamin Franklin in a spoof of Harvard that he wrote as a teenager, in 1722:

Now I bethought my self in my Sleep, that it was Time to be at Home, and as I fancy’d I was travelling back thither, I reflected in my Mind on the extream Folly of those Parents, who, blind to their Childrens Dulnes, and insensible of the Solidity of their Skulls, because they think their Purses can afford it, will needs send them to the Temple of Learning, where, for want of a suitable Genius, they learn little more than how to carry themselves handsomely, and enter a room genteely, (which might as well be acquire’d at a Dancing-School,) and from whence they return, after Abundance of Trouble and Charge, as great Blockheads as ever, only more proud and self-conceited.

The idea that formal education was unnecessary or even inimical to economic success was a staple of American popular culture from Franklin’s time until the mid-twentieth century. In works as adoring as Horatio Alger’s novels and as condemnatory as Theodore Dreiser’s The Financier, the self-made man always drops out of school and becomes a kind of apprentice to an older businessman as the first step on the road to riches.

. November 3, 2010 at 5:24 pm

IN 1951 there were 2.1 million Americans enrolled in institutions of higher learning, in 1956 nearly 3 million, in 1961 more than 4 million, and in 1970, the year Henry Chauncey retired from the presidency of ETS, 8.6 million. This growth was unmatched in any other country in the world, and it made higher education into something it had never been before — the personnel office for white-collar America. The country’s booming corporations began to require a college degree as a prerequisite for white-collar employment. The politics of expanding higher education was wonderful. Governors and legislators, and later the federal government, were able to deliver to middle-class constituents a much appreciated and at the time usually inexpensive benefit. Architects, engineers, and contractors (who often contribute generously to political campaigns) got work in enormous university-building projects in every state.

emily November 3, 2010 at 10:08 pm

What would such an approach actually involve? Did you have any particular trades in mind? Also, if marketable skills students are acquiring are in carpentry or web design or accounting, what is the justification for the rest of their education?

See this is playing off of this notion that you either are a ‘trades’ person our you are an ‘academic’. It isn’t clear to me why we draw a distinction between the two as if you can’t be someone who both wants to be a carpenter and also wants to study closely greek mythology.

The justification for the rest of their education is personal and intellectual enrichment. This idea that you need to devote your degree entirely to something useful or something relatively ‘useless’ in application to a hands-on job seems narrow-minded and lacking creativity.

So, just mix and match – offer a bunch of excellent trades programs that count as credits towards some specific arts degree. Double major in a trade and in an academic field.

Milan November 3, 2010 at 10:51 pm

That could provide some useful insurance, given the pressures on the middle class.

Being qualified to be either a carpenter OR an office drone could be valuable, as the domestic and international economic situation continues to evolve.

Tristan November 4, 2010 at 5:16 pm

Perhaps this RSA animation on education reform is relevant:

Mark November 7, 2010 at 4:00 am

Tristan – Having argued over plenty of things on this blog, and generally finding myself on the other side to the issue to you, here I find one where I agree with you completely. Study what you like, ignore employers, concentrate on doing more interesting things.
(Hiring is Obselete anyway: )

Milan November 7, 2010 at 4:22 pm

Interesting article, though it probably applies mostly to those with skills that translate well into eventual profits.

For those with more of a public policy focus, perhaps the startup route is less promising.

oleh November 9, 2010 at 4:20 am

One possible way to proceed is to reconsider the time frame adn the idea that it is generally to take place in an institutional setting, usually one.

A broader experience could include co-op programs or a program such as a Katimavik. In these settings we could foster co-operation in a group setting leading to accomplishment of goals. This may provide a wider experience than the current model of 4 year in one institution generally involving a continued teacher-student model.

Milan May 10, 2011 at 5:46 pm

University degrees are still correlated with higher income in Canada.

. August 17, 2016 at 3:08 pm

Further breakthroughs soon followed, as researchers examined how the asymmetry problem could be solved. Mr Spence’s flagship contribution was a 1973 paper called “Job Market Signalling” that looked at the labour market. Employers may struggle to tell which job candidates are best. Mr Spence showed that top workers might signal their talents to firms by collecting gongs, like college degrees. Crucially, this only works if the signal is credible: if low-productivity workers found it easy to get a degree, then they could masquerade as clever types.

This idea turns conventional wisdom on its head. Education is usually thought to benefit society by making workers more productive. If it is merely a signal of talent, the returns to investment in education flow to the students, who earn a higher wage at the expense of the less able, and perhaps to universities, but not to society at large. One disciple of the idea, Bryan Caplan of George Mason University, is currently penning a book entitled “The Case Against Education”. (Mr Spence himself regrets that others took his theory as a literal description of the world.)

. April 5, 2017 at 1:54 pm

Employers use degrees because they’ve seen a correlation (not causation) between degree holders and minimum threshold of employability over non-degree holders, on average. Not because college does something to make people better at their work. Employers know it does nothing of the sort. They have gobs of info to sort through, and they look for quick easy ways to trim down pools of applicants. It’s illegal to use IQ and other measures, so they put together a bag of info that they think is a decent approximation. A degree is one data point in that bag.

. February 12, 2018 at 9:33 pm

Parents, teachers, politicians and researchers tirelessly warn today’s youths about the unforgiving job market that awaits them. If they want to succeed in tomorrow’s economy, they can’t just coast through school. They have to soak up precious knowledge like a sponge. But even as adulthood approaches, students rarely heed this advice. Most treat high school and college like a game, not an opportunity to build lifelong skills.

Is it possible that students are on to something? There is a massive gap between school and work, between learning and earning. While the labor market rewards good grades and fancy degrees, most of the subjects schools require simply aren’t relevant on the job. Literacy and numeracy are vital, but few of us use history, poetry, higher mathematics or foreign languages after graduation. The main reason firms reward education is because it certifies (or “signals”) brains, work ethic and conformity.

It’s therefore sensible, if unseemly, for students to focus more on going through the motions than acquiring knowledge.

Almost everyone pays lip service to the glories of education, but actions speak louder than words. Ponder this: If a student wants to study at Princeton, he doesn’t really need to apply or pay tuition. He can simply show up and start taking classes. As a professor, I assure you that we make near-zero effort to stop unofficial education; indeed, the rare, earnestly curious student touches our hearts. At the end of four years at Princeton, though, the guerrilla student would lack one precious thing: a diploma. The fact that almost no one tries this route — saving hundreds of thousands of dollars along the way — is a strong sign that students understand the value of certification over actual learning.

. February 25, 2018 at 11:01 pm

Spending on universities is usually justified by the “graduate premium”—the increase in earnings that graduates enjoy over non-graduates. These individual gains, the thinking goes, add up to an economic boost for society as a whole. But the graduate premium is a flawed unit of reckoning. Part of the usefulness of a degree is that it gives a graduate jobseeker an advantage at the expense of non-graduates. It is also a signal to employers of general qualities, such as intelligence and diligence, that someone already has in order to get into a university. Some professions require qualifications. But a degree is not always the best measure of the skills and knowledge needed for a job. With degrees so common, recruiters are using them as a crude way to screen applicants. Non-graduates are thus increasingly locked out of decent work.

In any case, the premium counts only the winners and not the losers. Across the rich world, a third of university entrants never graduate. It is the weakest students who are drawn in as higher education expands and who are most likely to drop out. They pay fees and sacrifice earnings to study, but see little boost in their future incomes. When dropouts are included, the expected financial return to starting a degree for the weakest students dwindles to almost nothing. Many school-leavers are being misled about the probable value of university.

. February 25, 2018 at 11:06 pm

In a comparison of the earnings of people with degrees and people without them, those who start university but do not finish are lumped in with those who never started, even though they, too, will have paid fees and missed out on earnings. Their numbers are considerable. In America 40% of college students fail to graduate with four-year degrees within six years of enrolling. Drop-out rates across the developed world average around 30%. It is the students admitted with the lowest grades who are least likely to graduate.

Including dropouts when calculating the returns to going to university makes a big difference. In a new book, “The Case Against Education”, Bryan Caplan of George Mason University argues that the low graduation rates of marginal students, and the fact that, for a given level of qualification, cleverer people tend to earn more, mean that the return on a four-year degree in America ranges from 6.5% for excellent students to just 1% for the weakest ones.

. January 18, 2021 at 3:32 am

In the US, he points out, there are two political chief executives, each commanding his own elite cadre, with nothing yet being done at a deep structural level to improve circumstances. “We’ve seen growing immiseration for 30 to 40 years: rising levels of state debt, declining median wages and declining life expectancies. But the most important aspect is elite overproduction” – by which he means that not just capital owners but high professionals – lawyers, media professionals and entertainment figures – have become insulated from wider society. It is not just the 1% who are in this privileged sector, but the 5% or 10% or even 20% – the so-called “dream hoarders” – they vie for a fixed number of positions and to translate wealth into political position.

“The elites had a great run for a while but their numbers become too great. The situation becomes so extreme they start undermining social norms and [there is] a breakdown of institutions. Who gets ahead is no longer the most capable, but [the one] who is willing to play dirtier.”

Milan October 1, 2021 at 5:08 pm

The emphasis on enticing students to enroll has led to a focus on what universities can advertise. But how does one advertise an education, or the quality of a school’s faculty? Most students are, almost by definition, not in a position to assess a professor’s expertise. Undergraduate tour guides rarely speak to the quality of teaching they experience, especially compared with that at competitor universities they have almost certainly not attended.

What a school can advertise, through glossy pamphlets, professionally produced websites, and those iconic tours, are campus amenities: rock-climbing walls, state-of-the-art gyms, and ample dining options. University leadership, looking to compete for students, promises a fun student life, in place of an educational one. And, of course, those amenities cost money.

Students keep paying because their costs are subsidized with loans. High-school seniors turn out to be fairly poor at assessing the long-term costs and benefits of taking on debt in order to briefly enjoy campus amenities. Offer them a fun time now for money paid in the future and most will take it. This is not a slight against the current generation of college students; we were all 18 once.

But even as tuitions rise, almost none of this money is funneled back into instruction or professors. Quite to the contrary, more and more instructors are poorly paid, overworked part-time adjuncts. In 1970, more than 77 percent of university faculty were full-time instructors. Today, 46 percent of faculty are part-time adjuncts; nearly 75 percent are non-tenure-track, effectively an inversion of the old system.

Milan October 1, 2021 at 5:09 pm

The first step is to abandon the business model of education. States need to be willing to reverse the endless budget cuts that have left universities so reliant on stratospheric tuition. Any new funds, however, need to be flagged for instructional budgets and conditioned on tenure-track hires, not more rock-climbing walls, further adjunctification, or empty-chair administrators.

States should also move to cap tuition. Indexing the cap against a mix of inflation, instructional costs, and teacher pay (counted as an average per credit so that it fully reflects the pay of adjuncts and graduate instructors, not merely tenure-track faculty) might serve to tether tuition to the real cost of an education. That way, if universities do want to raise tuition, they will need to reinvest that money into their operational mission of education.

It is too late to apply these solutions to the current pandemic. That damage is done. Universities must give up the false hope of reopening and for now shift to online instruction. Enrollments will likely fall. Some schools will absorb the blow; some will close forever. But putting our 50-state university systems back on firm footing is necessary both to keep college affordable in normal years and to keep the systems robust enough to weather the next crisis.

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