Overcoming the negative signal of not attending college.

Besides the already mentioned issues, there are at least two very important ones.

First, one important thing that a university diploma signals is the ability to behave in proper ways that are demanded in professional situations, and to credibly maintain this appearance for several years. In particular, one of my pet hypotheses is that the notoriously high level of political correctness on campuses in fact serves a useful signaling role for employers. Even very productive and capable employees can end up as a net loss if they say or do something stupid that ... (read more)

Of course, another thing that universities are in the business of selling is the opportunity to mingle and make connections with high-status people, as well as the inherent increase in status that comes from the affiliation with a high-status institution. Status in human relations is often not reducible to a matter of signaling other traits, and the fact that universities currently possess high status and the power of bestowing it mean that they have control of an inherently scarce and fixed-sum resource, so they're impossible to undercut barring some very great social changes.

This is right on the mark, in my opinion.

Overcoming the negative signal of not attending college.

by James_Miller 1 min read16th Feb 201147 comments


The signaling view of college holds that graduates of elite colleges earn high average salaries not because of what they learned in school  but rather because top colleges select for students who have highly valued traits, the two most important probably being high IQ and strong work ethic.  Since in rich countries almost every smart, hard working person attends college not going to college sends a loud negative signal to potential employers.  Elite colleges, of course, are fantastically expensive signaling devices.


Although I teach at an elite college I have a proposal for an alternate much less expensive and probably even more accurate signaling mechanism.  An organization could have a one month program which only admits those who get a high score on the SATs or some other intelligence test.  Then the entire program would consist of spending sixteen hours a day solving by hand simple addition and subtraction problems.  The point of the program would be to show that its graduates can spend a huge amount of time doing extremely boring tasks with high accuracy.   Graduating from the program would signal that you had both a high IQ and strong work ethic.


If the program had a reputation for graduating valuable employees then I suspect it would become desirable to many recent high school graduates.  The challenge would be for the program to initially earn its reputation.  Perhaps it could accomplish this by having some well-known backers, by giving big cash grants to its first few graduates or by promising the first few graduates attractive jobs such as at the SIAI.