This is not going to be an easy post for me to write but I will commit off the top to avoid wallowing in personal travail. The issue however, the signaling component of higher education, is for a dropout like myself fraught with highly defensive emotional bias that will underpin everything I write. The extent to which my dropout status disqualifies me from providing an opinion on the matter is really the pivot around which I want this post to revolve. I should thank professor Cowen yet again for recent posts like this one that provide the window (or cover, depending on your perspective) to write this down and have even an outside chance of anyone reading it.
Some combination of a diligent guidance counselor and a hysterical mother meant that a weeklong battery of IQ testing at the University psych department accompanied my late-high school academic fall from grace. And although I have frequently wished this were not the case, the results were as expected for my psychopathically arrogant teen self. The point, in hindsight, is that the drug-addled misery that was to follow was entirely caused by a lack of maturity and general fuckedupedness.
It is my sincere belief that well over 50% of the population has the intellectual capacity to earn an undergrad degree, particularly if given direction as to where to focus. This is not to suggest that intelligence is not an important factor in the late-teen, early 20s streaming of the population. It does imply that for the middle of the bell curve, the overwhelmingly deciding factor is maturity that for the majority success or failure regarding higher education is in many ways one vast, complicated marshmallow test.
I assume that most people reading this have earned an undergrad and I’m highly curious as to their reaction to the above sentiments. Is it “Well, winners win” as my old friend JC used to say or more popularly “Do or do not. There is no try”? Fair enough, if so. None of this is to demean the consistent hard work and diligence that academics require. It should be a decisive advantage. But for how long?
My question in the end is whether there should be a statute of limitations on the importance of higher education in determining future wealth and status. The issue is entirely hypothetical admittedly – I’m not going to suggest a multi-trillion dollar “No Teen Left Behind” government program nor do I have any delusions that efforts will be made by the academically successful to drain the moat that protects their career advancement from the lesser-washed. But still, one wonders whether the increasing cynicism as to the tangible, ex-signaling benefits of higher education will result in recognition that talent lies elsewhere, with those that failed the Big Marshmallow Test and matured late. As the labor force shrinks, it is conceivable that two 35-year olds with similar work histories will be judged on largely equal footing, without respect to academic achievement that ended more than a decade previously.
As always, I’m exaggerating the case to make a point. I am well aware that hundreds of thousands of people without degrees have a net worth in the millions of dollars. Failure to get a degree is not a guarantee of lifelong poverty, although I can attest that it certainly feels like it at the time. It is also not the case that I’m inviting readers to a pity party on my account – things have turned out pretty well for me and I have been insanely lucky in many regards. I do, however, retain a great deal of sympathy for those that for self-inflicted (my case) or other factors, were distracted at the exact point in time when the academic fork in the road that would go a long way to determine their future success was directly in front of them. I’m biased, clearly, and dramatically so. But I suspect and hope that the current hand-wringing regarding the limits of conventional higher education, combined with demographic factors and the need for constant workplace re-education, will result in more work environments where advancement is determined by proven ability, and less dependent on a maturity test that occurred at a specific point in time.