This is the last time I’m going to address this issue here for at least awhile, but I did want to pick at one last example in the mushrooming “college isn’t worth it” genre, both because this is the worst I’ve read (and that’s really saying something) and because I think I can address some commenter pushback by doing so.
In the virtual pages of the Atlantic — where else? they’ve become a one-stop anti-intellectual shop– Daniel Indiviglio grinds the well-worn axe. His fundamental argument is that smart and motivated kids go to college, so when employers find that college graduates are smart and motivated, they are mistaking college inputs for college outputs.
a college degree has become a proxy for determining whether a job applicant has a minimum level of intelligence necessary to perform a job. But with many private college educations exceeding $120,000 these days, that’s a pretty expensive means for identifying adequate intelligence. Unfortunately, this may describe all a college degree has become. There was a time when a high school degree served this purpose. But when high school standards declined and college became more popular, some applicants stood out above others as being more educated and potentially smarter than those with only a high school diploma.
In other words, Indiviglio is asserting that the perceived value of college is very close to entirely the product of selection bias. College doesn’t produce better students, it simply filters out the less motivated or intelligent in its selection process.
There’s just one problem for Indiviglio: correcting for these variables is precisely what the researchers attempting to assess the college wage premium have been doing, and the overwhelming evidence suggests that the college wage premium exists after correcting for ability effects.
Don”t take my word for it; take Tyler Cowen‘s. You can disagree with his politics, and I do, but he is impeccably credentialed and widely regarded as a brilliant academic:
Indeed these papers are obsessed with distinguishing learning effects from preexisting human capital differences. That is what these papers are, so to speak. In that context, “ability bias” in the estimates doesn’t seem to be very large, see for instance the Angrist or Card pieces linked to above. This paper surveys some of the “adjusting for ability bias” literature; it is considered quite “pessimistic” (allows for a good deal of signaling, in Caplan’s terminology) and still it finds a positive five percent a year real productivity gain from an extra year of schooling.
What’s striking about the work surveyed by Card is how many different methods are used and how consistent their results are. You can knock down any one of them (“are identical twins really identical?, etc.), but at the end of the day which are the pieces — using natural or field experiments — standing on the other side of the scale? ….
There really does seem to be a professional consensus. Maybe it’s wrong, and/or dominated by biased pro-education specialists, but I’m not seeing very strong arguments against it. For the time being at least, I don’t see that there is much anywhere else to go with one’s beliefs.
Read the whole thing. This section amounts to about as thorough a refutation of Indiviglio’s piece as I can imagine.
Did Indiviglio do any research at all for his piece? Did he read the studies? Even the abstracts? Did he pick up the phone and call any number of professors and academics who could have talked to him at length, about these specific studies or about selection bias in general? What’s particularly ludicrous about this article is that Indiviglio writes as if the idea of self-fulfilling prophecies or selection effects are something he dreamed up when he wrote the article. Those vexing aspects of interpreting data happen to be something of an obsession in social science– which, again, anyone minimally qualified to speak on the issue would have told Inviglio, if he had bothered to do his job and actually research the claims he is making. What does he imagine these researchers do all day? Does he suppose that selection effects simply never occurred to them?
I would put it to you that writing as if selection bias is something that is unaccounted for in the available academic literature isn’t a matter of Indiviglio and me disagreeing on a contentious subject. I would argue that it’s simple journalistic malpractice, the kind that demands public correction, or at least some sort of internal review. Given that the publication of anti-university posts is now a daily phenomenon at the Atlantic, I’m not holding my breath; I think they are more interested in selling this narrative than in protecting their credibility. But if the magazine has anything like the journalistic integrity signaled by its writers’ considerable self regard, an editor would at least call Indiviglio and ask why he is so ignorant of such a central part of his argument.
It’s shoddy journalism all around. Indiviglio asserts that college teaches skills that are irrelevant to many professions, mocking the idea that cops or plumbers need to be educated to perform their jobs well. (“Heck, even basic high school writing and math skills will probably be more than they’ll ever need on-the-job.” Yeah, those low-wage droogs don’t need any fancy learnin’.) Indiviglio merely asserts this, as he merely asserts all of his arguments in the piece. Even if this were true, it wouldn’t undermine the case for college. As is widely understood in the available literature, direct skill acquisition is only a part of the advantage of higher education. A college diploma increases wages even for those whose jobs don’t require them, demonstrating that the metaskills and life lessons learned at college such as time management, discipline, and research focus improve outcomes for people even if they don’t use every direct skill they learn in their professional lives. Near-subsistence farmers (farmers!) benefit financially from college education, again, after correcting for input distortion. (Do your job! Read the literature!)
Indiviglio repeats the standard “college is a bubble” canard. No. You can’t have a conventional asset bubble with a non-transferable resource. There is no significant speculative market for college degrees, and could not be, as the asset cannot be transferred. The value of a college degree is not an intrinsic value that can appreciate or depreciate directly. A house’s value may be minimally subject to disagreement in the marketplace, but it is the commodity itself which holds the value. In the comments to the piece, I pointed out to Indiviglio that he wasn’t actually doing anything to refute the extant social science on this topic. He replied, ludicrously, “Just like from 2003-2007 buying a home in Nevada really paid off. That’s irrefutable too, and yet…” In other words, his rebuttal is that an absolutely unprecedented collapse in wages for those with college degrees is coming, despite having no evidence of this whatsoever and despite the fact that the current economic conditions are already severely unbalanced in the favor of employers without this collapse occurring. College degrees not a commodity that operates according to the same basic principles as soybeans or houses in Nevada.
Online journalists and pundits are looking for a problem that all of the best evidence suggests does not exist. They can’t provide empirical evidence to support their claims, yet they persist, and seem to want to prove their points by sheer weight of words.
Indiviglio’s piece is an embarrassment, but it is entirely par for the course once journalists hit on a narrative and insist on working it over and over again. There’s a lot you can say in response to lazy, biased journalism such as this. (I’d love to teach journalists that you can’t, actually, deduce the answer to empirical questions such as “is there a college wage premium.”) But I would put it to you that the most important lesson is actually to be found in the comments. There, you will find dozens of people asserting that Indiviglio is right– while at the same time announcing their own collegiate credentials. The appeal of this sort of piece is that it tells people that everyone else is a stooge who got sold a bill of goods, while allowing them to continue to think of themselves as the outliers. Like I’ve said, everybody seems to want to push this narrative, but no one is willing to abandon their own status as educated people. If you expand Indiviglio’s bio, you see that he proudly announces that he triple majored at Cornell. He’s evidently very proud.
He should be. Cornell is a great school, and triple majoring anywhere is quite an accomplishment. In part, yes, his degree says that he was smart enough to get into Cornell. But it also says that he accomplished the vast number of tasks required to get a diploma from the school. It must have taken hundreds or thousands of hours of work and the production of hundreds of pages of academic text. Does Indiviglio imagine that this had no impact on his life? That he learned nothing, developed no skills, acquired no useful traits or habits? I can’t imagine doing anything for as long as college takes without being changed by the experience.
I’m sorry to say that his bio shares space with a post that flatly mocks the idea that cops or plumbers or other proles should be educated. And this, finally, is the point of all of these arguments: the authors, and their enlightened readership, are of course educated and brilliant. It’s everybody else who got fooled and has a worthless degree. This isn’t just irresponsible and juvenile journalism which leaves its readership less informed than they were before. It’s yet another salvo in reporting as a vehicle for petty resentment, class war waged with the ugly pretense that it is being done for those being mocked, and anti-intellectualism dressed up as public service. I don’t expect any review or correction from the august Atlantic— such self-criticism is beneath their hallowed station– but I do hope people will realize that lazy deduction is no substitute for responsible empirical study.