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11 September 2012


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Not much to say to this - I think it is self-evidently true. I also think that the Open Source Curriculum movement highlights this well - OSC is an effort to promote acquisition of knowledge and skills. The courses are free, and often provided by very prestigious institutions, but they provide no credentials, no degree, no certificate. You can get almost a complete MIT Sloan undergraduate business education online for free without affecting traditional applications for MIT at all...because MIT knows that their real product is the degree, not the education.

Jennifer Fitz

My hunch is that proportion of "signaling" is going to vary by major, and by student within majors. It'll be a tough one to test experimentally.

I bet you'd get some disheartening but revealing data by testing how much employers value the signal, though.


Perhaps predictably, Megan's piece seems fairly persuasive to me.

I think she makes a key point about college performing two purposes in our society: education and signalling. Both of these are important to the person considering college, but in many was the one is destructive to the other. If college is seen as primarily signalling, this will tend to undercut its purpose as education, and we certainly see that with students picking colleges for reasons other than educational value. Similarly, the ability to make decisions about college purely on the basis of the education involved is undercut by the tendency of employers to treat it is signalling rather than education.

I'm not sure if I necessarily agree with her that signalling itself has no social value, and thus that it would make no sense for society to spend money on something which is primarily a signalling mechanism. There is, after all, a value to information.

The big problem in relation to social value is if college is being treated by employers as if it's almost purely signalling while being treated by students and parents and society as if its almost primarily education with a bit of entitlement thrown in.


Darwin, I think you are putting your finger on one of the problems: There is a tremendous bait-and-switch going on here.

When it's convenient to do so, college promoters talk about the college degree as a signal ("if you don't get one, no one will even take a look at your resume").

Then when it's time to discuss how much you should spend and what you should major in, all of a sudden education is priceless "for its own sake" and "you should do what you love because that's what really matters" (and maybe it's also what leads students to change majors frequently, setting themselves further and further behind, graduating later and later, and paying for more and more semesters of college?)

There's this finely tuned swing between "For heaven's sake, you HAVE to go to college, major in ANYTHING, it doesn't MATTER, just GRADUATE" and "Education is so valuable you can't put a price on it, so buy the most expensive one you can get a loan for."

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I think I read something somewhere about this

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