2015-07-28

Lifelong Signaling

Gallup reports that post-graduates have an "edge" in lifelong learning, being about 14% more likely (3-in-4 versus 2-in-3 among the general population) to self-report that they "learn or do something interesting every day." This shouldn't really surprise anyone since post-graduates are typically employed in academia and research occupations. Obviously, those who work in professions that require that they learn something will be more likely to report that they actually do so.

No, the interesting aspect of the Gallup results are contained in a separate "opinion" piece that appears today on Gallup's website, entitled "No Evidence That Bachelor's Degrees Lead To Lifelong Learning."

Why is that an important finding? As author Brandon Busteed writes,
Nearly every single college and university promotes "lifelong learning" as a core goal for its students and graduates. So much so that it's written into most mission or purpose statements of higher education institutions. And although most Americans -- students and parents especially -- say their No. 1 reason for attending or valuing college is "to get a good job," lifelong learning -- to most academics -- is considered a core mission of higher education. Given how much emphasis is placed on lifelong learning as a goal, it would be reasonable to think that higher education institutions have measured whether this outcome is being achieved.
Setting aside post-graduates, education levels make absolutely no difference in the likelihood that people learn or do something interesting every day.

Meanwhile, college grads do make substantially more money than their less-educated counterparts, but as Busteed observes,
The academic world, however, is quick to dismiss purely economic outcomes as the sole purpose of higher education and for good reason. The common refrain then goes something like, "Yes, but it's not just about a job, it's about creating lifelong learners and engaged citizens." At which point everyone just nods approvingly without ever demanding any evidence. It's time to start digging for that evidence -- and quickly! So far, what Gallup has found doesn't look very good.
Busteed goes on to cite evidence that the reason people might not become lifelong learners is due to poor, or at least unengaging, college instructors. Another possibility, however, is that "purely economic outcomes" really are the sole purpose of higher education. It's possible that people are primarily driven to complete a bachelor's degree so that they can get a good job, or at least that employers are motivated to weed-out college non-graduates in search of the best field of candidates for positions.

This "possibility" has a name: The Signaling Model of Education. You're not there to learn, you're there to jump through hoops so that you can get a job.

Before you object, consider what I wrote last year in a post entitled, "What They Should Have Told You About School:"
College is your opportunity to select your tax bracket. When you take that to heart, the decision becomes much easier. Lower tax brackets involve much less responsibility, and that is a choice that appeals to many people. In fact, there's nothing wrong at all with preferring a life of modest means and modest achievements, if that's what your choice is.
... 
If you really do want to achieve something later in your life, then it is in your best interest to choose a high tax bracket during your college years. That means: Choose a college diploma that gives you very high earnings potential and work your tail off to be at the head of your class. Then, leverage that diploma and those grades toward getting the highest-paying job you can possibly find. It is at that point that all of the pieces finally fit together in your head. 
Ten years later, ten years after graduating college, you will finally know what you want to do for a living. It might not be what you're doing, but you will have the means to pursue it, whatever it is. By "means" I mean both the financial ability to pay for it and the work experience required to earn a place in that position, whatever it might be.

You'll be expertly positioned for a lifetime of success in a field you enjoy. That's what you want, right?