Would You Rather Have a UC Berkeley Diploma and No Education, or Education and No Diploma?

There’s a very interesting debate going on among economist bloggers on the "signaling" theory of  education. Would you rather have a [insert prestigious college name here] diploma and no education from there, or the [prestigious college name] education with no diploma? "The signaling theory says that to a significant extent, education does not increase workers’ productivity. Instead, the fact that you obtain an education shows that you were more productive all along, which makes employers want to hire you."

Gary Becker, perhaps the most influential living economist, argues that signaling benefits have tailed off considerably, to the point where it doesn’t matter if someone went to Stanford or the University of Phoenix – after their first job, their overall productivity and success will trump whatever degree they hold. "Pay adjusts to productivity, not education credentials."

Tyler Cowen offers a novel point that education is about "self-acculturation." It’s about surrounding yourself with peers and social attitudes that form a self-image which values intelligence, wealth, etc. "Your identity is shaped by what you are doing, and your peers, between the critical ages of thirteen to your early twenties.  Those are precisely the years covered by our educational system."

Bryan Caplan rebuts these points. "Sure, employers eventually figure out how productive a worker is IF they hire him. But interviewing is expensive, and so is getting rid of disappointing workers. So it still makes sense to use credentials to make interviewing and hiring decisions: You save valuable time, and reduce the chance of hiring unproductive workers."

I will chime in with my own two cents later.

8 comments on “Would You Rather Have a UC Berkeley Diploma and No Education, or Education and No Diploma?
  • Ha, since I’m a Stanford grad, I can denigrate Cal degrees.

    But seriously, I think that a degree is always going to have signalling power.

    While it is true that there are some smart people who, for whatever reason, don’t do well academically, the ability to do well in our educational system is undoubtedly a positive.

    All other things being equal, I’ll generally favor a candidate with a “better” formal education.

  • Right out of college, sure.

    If I’m considering hiring you, though, I don’t really care that you went to Stanford. I want to know what you’ve done at Symphoniq and of course Google you to find your blog and other writings. Your formal education is a nice plus but well on the periphery of my hiring decision.

  • It’s all a question of the type of hire as well. If you’re hiring a VP or
    CEO, the person’s accomplishments should speak for her/him. But if you’re
    hiring someone lower down, there just isn’t the same kind of public trail.
    Also, “right out of college” is a pretty important time! I’d take every
    advantage I could get at that point.

    But it is interesting to note that the Internet and social media have
    allowed the truly great to transcend this.

    Ben Responds
    As people become more transparent (by choice or by others’ choices)
    signaling benefits decrease.

  • Just as there is a program for homeschooling for K-12, I think there should also be a program for home colleging. If I could re-create at home, with perhaps the oversight of some type of “expert” government body, the course material from a college program then I should be granted the legitimacy of a college diploma.

    Since I am considering entering the field of architecture and design, I have struggled with this very question and when I have interviewed people in the field I have received various answers. Some say that your portfolio is all that matters, some say the degree is all that matters (in terms of landing your first job).

    I think that as a society we should open our minds to the self-taught {fill in the blank}. I mean really, does it take more effort to attend class hungover after a particularly grueling kegger, or to do the hard lifting of reasearching and learning a topic on your own steam and initiative?

  • I’d have education with no Diploma cause I can tell anyone I have any Diploma and I’m never checked.
    You look Great Ben;)

  • A lot of people are also turning to life experience degrees from diploma mills and some are even turning to fake degrees, but honestly a college education is so much more that just the diploma you hang in your wall.

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *