Friday, July 20, 2018

How to Break the College Monopoly on Credentials

Suppose you were to think, like me, that America suffers from a significant surplus of university education. It takes young men and women, ladens them with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, and indoctrinates them with progressive propaganda in an atmosphere of hedonism for four years.

On its own, this is bad enough. But instead, a bizarre idea has developed that everyone needs a college degree in order to be a person of any worth. Which means that the above process now applies to a far greater fraction of the population than it did two generations ago. And the new people at the margin, going to crummy colleges, are likely to be those for whom the instructional value is of the least benefit.

As far as I can tell, the massive increase in demand for higher education over the previous decades seems to be cargo cult reasoning writ large - rich successful people went to college, ergo if I go to college I will be rich and successful. A fortiori, if we all go to college, we'll all end up rich! Better subsidize all those student loans, now helpfully made non-dischargeable in bankruptcy.

The unfortunate part is that I suspect that a good number of the people who go to college (or at least their parents) probably sympathise with the fact that the above reasoning is moronic. So how come they don't just skip it? Because, of course, it's a signalling arms race. Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM, and nobody ever got fired for hiring the Harvard undergrad. 

Surely, you may think, there must be enough people who see through this, and realise that intelligent people willing to spend the four years doing on-the-job training will end up much better skilled than those who just graduated from college? Wouldn't they be willing to punt on these people, and thereby put an end to much of the madness?

The problem, of course, is information asymmetry. The enormous college application system acts as a certification system of hopefully job-related traits, mixed in with pozz, affirmative action, and associated nonsense. But it is quite adept at producing one conclusion: if you go to a university ranked between #15 and #25, it is highly probable that you applied to, and got rejected from, universities ranked #1 through #14. What you actually learned in the college is harder to assess. There's some value in GPA, but that keeps getting grade inflated more and more.

And getting an equivalently good signal elsewhere is still quite difficult, which I suspect is why employers skeptical of the quality of instruction at colleges still use it. The Supreme Court has made IQ tests effectively prohibited in hiring decisions unless you're willing to risk ruinous disparate impact lawsuits, and the general mix of extra-curricular activities, essays, and in-person interviews that signals "high achieving and socially adept" is easier to outsource to universities than to do in-house for most companies.

So if employers rely on this signal, if you don't go to college, you get lumped in with the people who couldn't get into any college at all. Obviously, in person it's not hard to signal that you're smarter than the rest of that pool. But how do you get past the first HR screening? How do you avoid people just assuming that you didn't go to college simply because you couldn't go to college, or at least any one worth attending?

Well, one way you could deal with it is as follows. Work very hard in high school, and apply to all the best colleges. Then take your best five acceptance letters, staple them to your CV, but don't go to any of them. This is something that people wouldn't quite know what to make of. They have a category for people who couldn't get into college. They have a category for "college dropout", as someone who got into a good college, but (they assume) having got there was too lazy, too much of a misfit, or just unable to hack it. But they have no category for someone who got into a good school but never went in the first place. Which means they have to think a bit harder as to what to make of you. If you turn up with an acceptance from Stanford, and a glowing high school record, and that's the last data on the subject because you never actually turned up, it's much harder for employees to put you in the dropout category, as the last data on the subject indicates that you probably would have succeeded. The reason this works is that college has largely become a joke, whereby it's very hard to actually fail out. Getting in may be hard, but getting through is not. The more of a joke it becomes, the more viable becomes the strategy of just signalling that you got accepted.

If you include with your CV a brief letter explaining how you think that college is a very expensive, bad deal for most students, and you'd much rather spend the time earning money and acquiring useful on the job skills, lots of employers would probably agree. Moreover, if you've already credibly shown that you could have done it, much of the signalling value is already achieved. Most of the signal is getting accepted, but it doesn't cost $100K for an acceptance letter. It's still possible that idiot HR types that just mechanically screen on college degrees (though you wouldn't fit into a clean bucket, so they may have to ponder harder what to do with you). The other risk is that people will just assume you're weird, simply because this is an unorthodox choice to make. I think this is where it's particularly important to come across as reasonable, thoughtful and socially skillful in your explanatory letter, so that employers don't think that you didn't go just because you were too much a weirdo.

I suspect if this got going (particularly if people realised that you could actually get hired this way), the monopoly on "you have to go to college" might unravel quite quickly. At a minimum, if you're planning on not going to college, this is a pretty low cost exercise to go through with almost no downside. It almost certainly will make you look more appealing to the employers of the world for much less than the cost of a college degree.

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