Higher Education as The Big Marshmallow Test

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.

14 thoughts on “Higher Education as The Big Marshmallow Test

  1. EconomicDisconnect says:

    The degree is often the only way to get a foot in the door. After that in my experience a degree is not indicative of success or ability. In my field of science thinking skills and experimental observations trump a years old education and often structured thinking is a drawback. Stiil, as is society values paper on a wall more so than results but that slowly seems to be changing.

  2. Rohit says:

    Its all about signalling and the average odds, Person went to college, graduated – thus showing a capacity to work, on an average over the person who did not. Unless new methods of signalling evolve, hard to see the education call option recede.

  3. Richard says:

    A few points in response:

    • I suffer from some of the same resentments, albeit in my case it was dropping out of a Ph.D program 25 years ago. Still, the issue of questioning my own abilities / questioning the merit of academic programs and feeling some resentment for the status of said programs rings true.
    • I work with a large number of programmers who are self-trained and without degrees. As far as I can tell, the degree is a tag which makes it easier for an employer to screen employees. Sometimes those who are self-taught have stronger skills, but they find it more difficult to pass the initial screening.
    • There are many academic programs which largely offer entre into the job market. The training is quite minimal, and the programs largely provides polish.
    • There are academic programs that provide insight and rigor, and they have been moving “up” the academic ladder over time. The undergraduate degree has been a “prep” degree for decades; real rigor was reserved for graduate degrees 20 years ago, and my suspicion (based on my discussions with academics and in casually taking a course or two over the years) is that rigor has migrated to the Ph.Ds.
    • While I believe “certified education” (in the form of a degree) is poorly correlated with job performance, I still strongly support education. Learning about different approaches to making sense of the world in a person’s late teens and early twenties can give breadth and options and possibilities to a person fairly early in their working career. All too often, younger workers get “locked” into a career not appropriate for them, and knowing and believing that there are other possibilities is a prerequisite for change.
    • I also suspect that a degree will become even more important in the future, and not less so. There are not many good measures of performance in service industries, and much of the performance increase is attributable to the entirety of a team (or sets of teams) working in concert. People who are autodidacts will have difficulty documenting what they have learned; people who have an enthusiasm for learning will not find evening classes and online courses to be a major hurdle, and will find learning theoretical material to be complementary to their own more practical experience.

  4. JMac says:

    I finished my bachelor’s degree ten years ago, and over the last three years have added a number of professional (non-university) courses. I likely would not have been able to gain entry level of employment in my field without a degree, so at that level at least my undergrad has been worthwhile.

    From a non-professional standpoint, I can say without a doubt that the real value in my university education was totally unrelated to my economics and business courses. History, religion, anthropology, and sociology were more interesting and valuable than I gave them credit for at the time, and where I learned to think “in someone else’s shoes”.

  5. Steve says:

    An undergraduate degree used to be good for only one thing — helping you obtain your first job. The degree signaled to employers that the graduate was able to stick to the task. Now with non-math, non-science degrees seriously dummied down, that signaling element is just about gone. The hungry dropout often now looks like a better hiring bet.

  6. Tony says:

    I’ve personally hired, trained and directly managed 100+ individuals in the past 18 months. While 1 without a degree has been great, the others have had more struggles than the those with degrees. The difference is enough for me to be wary and more cautious hiring those without degrees. Hiring new employees is always a gamble and using the degree as a key achievement helps to mitigate that risk.

    • kris says:

      Quite interesting. What field work?
      Engineering or anything related to it, I can see that.

      • Tony says:

        Insurance (Property Claim Handling). Those with degrees have shown a better attention to detail and a greater willingness to learn and do new things. My experience however is not necessarily representative of those at large.

      • kris says:

        Thx a lot for the reply.
        IMO it makes sense. That seems quite a structural kind of work, similar to handling essay writings and essay deadlines that a non-degree person would not be familiar with. If there is one thing that univ actually can teach you, it is structural work discipline.

  7. BP says:

    I did the PhD at a good institution thing, and I am utterly certian that school is a poor predictor of general intelligence, and a much better predictor of doggedness. The world, however, much prefers doggedness.

    There are some good reasons for this. Practice matters, and there is real payoff from working hard in terms of knowing and doing more. Sometimes you can fake it ’til you make it. And raw intelligence is a really good predictor of boredom (smart people find the steps to arrogance short and simple…) If I am hiring, it is so much easier to rely on the sort of work-capability filtering that academic success really does predict well. It is an imperfect filter, but there aren’t many good ones.

    All that said, a more mature 25 year old who fucked up at 18 should have the same opportunity as a 25 year old who was precociously focused at 17-25. We sort of let that happen for military people. I wish there was a better path otherwise.

    The path matters in life: the persistence of value comes about because opportunities flow from position, and in general, your opportunity is proportionate to your level. The PhD gets a different opportunity set, as does the person with teh MBA or JD. Not because they are smarter or better, but because they are already on a different rung. Advantage persists, adn it persists through life. If you look at each 5 years as a job ‘generation’ I would say that the advantage persists in net about 5-6 ‘generations’ in net–something like a .8 correlation coefficient (which ought to be only .6). Making it really hard to catch up, unless you break outside of the career (start your own) path, get lucky, or get into an organization that treats personell development seriously–and matches it with a program that rewards behavior.

    Good luck, tripping into the general unfairness of the world.

  8. kris says:

    There is only reason that higher education became so in demand: Government hiring. Particularly in Europe and here in Canada, you have to have higher education to work for the gov. In USA is no different. That increased the demand for undergrads, masters and phds.
    I have been surprised from the responses of many and many univ students to my question about it. The answer is they want to work for the gov.
    Hence colleges started offering useless masters and PhDs and the gov made it easy with student loans. That’s why there’s such a huge shortage for tradesmen, since a lot of people go to school to get “educated” instead of enhancing their natural trade’s skills.

  9. Carson says:

    A very highly motivated self-educator can compete with credentialed candidates in some industries. In the software world, show me what you’ve done continues to gain importance. Even with a credential, if you don’t have a github account displaying your work, you’re out in the first cut. It’s like a photographer/artist showing up to an interview with no portfolio.

    The online education boom is playing on the need for credentials that show specific skills. This doesn’t devalue a general liberal arts or science education. It just provides specificity and some assurance that the candidate actually knows and can do what is needed.

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