Human capital or signaling? No, it's about doing the Right Thing and acquiring karma

by VipulNaik 7 min read20th Apr 201416 comments

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There's a huge debate among economists of education on whether the positive relationship between educational attainment and income is due to human capital, signaling, or ability bias. But what do the students themselves believe? Bryan Caplan has argued that students' actions (for instance, their not sitting in for free on classes and their rejoicing at class cancellation) suggest a belief in the signaling model of education. At the same time, he notes that students may not fully believe the signaling model, and that shifting in the direction of that belief might improve individual educational attainment.

Still, something seems wrong about the view that most people believe in the signaling model of education. While their actions are consistent with that view, I don't think they frame it quite that way. I don't think they usually think of it as "education is useless, but I'll go through it anyway because that allows me to signal to potential employers that I have the necessary intelligence and personality traits to succeed on the job." Instead, I believe that people's model of school education is linked to the idea of karma: they do what the System wants them to do, because that's their duty and the Right Thing to do. Many of them also expect that if they do the Right Thing, and fulfill their duties well, then the System shall reward them with financial security and a rewarding life. Others may take a more fateful stance, saying that it's not up to them to judge what the System has in store for them, but they still need to do the Right Thing.

The case of the devout Christian

Consider a reasonably devout Christian who goes to church regularly. For such a person, going to church, and living a life in accordance with (his understanding of) Christian ethics is part of what he's supposed to do. God will take care of him as long as he does his job well. In the long run, God will reward good behavior and doing the Right Thing, but it's not for him to question God's actions.

Such a person might look bemused if you asked him, "Are you a practicing Christian because you believe in the prudential value of Christian teachings (the "human capital" theory) or because you want to give God the impression that you are worthy of being rewarded (the "signaling" theory")?" Why? Partly, because the person attributes omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence to God, so that the very idea of having a conceptual distinction between what's right and how to impress God seems wrong. Yes, he does expect that God will take care of him and reward him for his goodness (the "signaling" theory). Yes, he also believes that the Christian teachings are prudent (the "human capital" theory). But to him, these are not separate theories but just parts of the general belief in doing right and letting God take care of the rest.

Surely not all Christians are like this. Some might be extreme signalers: they may be deliberately trying to optimize for (what they believe to be) God's favor and maximizing the probability of making the cut to Heaven. Others might believe truly in the prudence of God's teachings and think that any rewards that flow are because the advice makes sense at the worldly level (in terms of the non-divine consequences of actions) rather than because God is impressed by the signals they're sending him through those actions. There are also a number of devout Christians I personally know who, regardless of their views on the matter, would be happy to entertain, examine, and discuss such hypotheses without feeling bemused. Still, I suspect the majority of Christians don't separate the issue, and many might even be offended at second-guessing God.

Note: I selected Christianity and a male sex just for ease of description; similar ideas apply to other religions and the female sex. Also note that in theory, some religious sects emphasize free will and others emphasize determinism more, but it's not clear to me how much effect this has on people's mental models on the ground.

The schoolhouse as church: why human capital and signaling sound ridiculous

Just as many people believe in following God's path and letting Him take care of the rewards, many people believe that by doing the Right Thing educationally (being a Good Student and jumping through the appropriate hoops through correctly applied sincere effort) they're doing their bit for the System. These people might be bemused at the cynicism involved in separating out "human capital" and "signaling" theories of education.

Again, not everybody is like this. Some people are extreme signalers: they openly claim that school builds no useful skills, but grades are necessary to impress future employers, mates, and society at large. Some are human capital extremists: they openly claim that the main purpose is to acquire a strong foundation of knowledge, and they continue to do so even when the incentive from the perspective of grades is low. Some are consumption extremists: they believe in learning because it's fun and intellectually stimulating. And some strategically combine these approaches. Yet, none of these categories describe most people.

I've had students who worked considerably harder on courses than the bare minimum effort needed to get an A. This is despite the fact that they aren't deeply interested in the subject, don't believe it will be useful in later life, and aren't likely to remember it for too long anyway. I think that the karma explanation fits best: people develop an image of themselves as Good Students who do their duty and fulfill their role in the system. They strive hard to fulfill that image, often going somewhat overboard beyond the bare minimum needed for signaling purposes, while still not trying to learn in ways that optimize for human capital acquisition. There are of course many other people who claim to aspire to the label of Good Student because it's the Right Thing, and consider it a failing of virtue that they don't currently qualify as Good Students. Of course, that's what they say, and social desirability bias might play a role in individuals' statements,  but the very fact that people consider such views socially desirable indicates the strong societal belief in being a Good Student and doing one's academic duty.

If you presented the signaling hypothesis to self-identified Good Students they'd probably be insulted. It's like telling a devout Christian that he's in it only to curry favor with God. At the same time, the human capital hypothesis might also seem ridiculous to them in light of their actual actions and experiences: they know they don't remember or understand the material too well. Thinking of it as doing their bit for the System because it's the Right Thing to do seems both noble and realistic.

The impressive success of this approach

At the individual level, this works! Regardless of the relative roles of human capital, signaling, and ability bias, people who go through higher levels of education and get better grades tend to earn better and get more high-status jobs than others. People who transform themselves from being bad students to good students often see rewards both academically and in later life in the form of better jobs. This could again be human capital, signaling, or ability bias. The ability bias explanation is plausible because it requires a lot of ability to turn from a bad student into a good student, about the same as it does to be a good student from the get-go or perhaps even more because transforming oneself is a difficult task.

Can one do better?

Doing what the System commands can be reasonably satisfying, and even rewarding. But for many people, and particularly for the people who do the most impressive things, it's not necessarily the optimal path. This is because the System isn't designed to maximize every individual's success or life satisfaction, or even to optimize things for society as a whole. It's based on a series of adjustments driven by squabbling between competing interests. It could be a lot worse, but a motivated person could do better.

Also note that being a Good Student is fundamentally different from being a Good Worker. A worker, whether directly serving customers or reporting to a boss, is producing stuff that other people value. So, at least in principle, being a better worker translates to more gains for the customers. This means that a Good Worker is contributing to the System in a literal sense, and by doing a better job, directly adds more value. But this sort of reasoning doesn't apply to Good Students, because the actions of students qua students aren't producing direct value. Their value is largely their consumption value to the students themselves and their instrumental value to the students' current and later life choices.

Many of the qualities that define a Good Student are qualities that are desirable in other contexts as well. In particular, good study habits are valuable not just in school but in any form of research that relies on intellectual comprehension and synthesis (this may be an example of the human capital gains from education, except that I don't think most students acquire good study habits). So, one thing to learn from the Good Student model is good study habits. General traits of conscientiousness, hardwork, and willingness to work beyond the bare minimum needed for signaling purposes are also valuable to learn and practice.

But the Good Student model breaks down when it comes to acquiring perspective about how to prioritize between different subjects, and how to actually learn and do things of direct value. A common example is perfectionism. The Good Student may spend hours practicing calculus to get a perfect score in the test, far beyond what's necessary to get an A in the class or an AP BC 5, and yet not acquire a conceptual understanding of calculus or learn calculus in a way that would stick. Such a student has acquired a lot of karma, but has failed from both the human capital perspective (in not acquiring durable human capital) and the signaling perspective (in spending more effort than is needed for the signal). In an ideal world, material would be taught in a way that one can score highly on tests if and only if it serves useful human capital or signaling functions, but this is often not the case.

Thus, I believe it makes sense to critically examine the activities one is pursuing as a student, and ask: "does this serve a useful purpose for me?" The purpose could be human capital. signaling, pure consumption, or something else (such as networking). Consider the following four extreme answers a student may give to why a particular high school or college course matters:

  • Pure signaling: A follow-up might be: "how much effort would I need to put in to get a good return on investment as far as the signaling benefits go?" And then one has to stop at that level, rather than overshoot or undershoot.
  • Pure human capital: A follow-up might be: "how do I learn to maximize the long-term human capital acquired and retained?" In this world, test performance matters only as feedback rather than as the ultimate goal of one's actions. Rather than trying to practice for hours on end to get a perfect score on a test, more effort will go into learning in ways that increase the probability of long-term retention in ways that are likely to prove useful later on. (As mentioned above, in an ideal world, these goals would converge).
  • Pure consumption: A follow-up might be: "how much effort should I put in in order to get the maximum enjoyment and stimulation (or other forms of consumptive experience), without feeling stressed or burdened by the material?"
  • Pure networking: A follow-up might be: "how do I optimize my course experience to maximize the extent to which I'm able to network with fellow students and instructors?"

One might also believe that some combination of these explanations applies. For instance, a mixed human capital-cum-signaling explanation might recommend that one study all topics well enough to get an A, and then concentrate on acquiring a durable understanding of the few subtopics that one believes are needed for long-term knowledge and skills. For instance, a mastery of fractions matters a lot more than a mastery of quadratic equations, so a student preparing for a middle school or high school algebra course might choose to learn both at a basic level but get a really deep understanding of fractions. Similarly, in calculus, having a clear idea of what a function and derivative means matters a lot more than knowing how to differentiate trigonometric functions, so a student may superficially understand all aspects (to get the signaling benefits of a good grade) but dig deep into the concept of functions and the conceptual definition of derivatives (to acquire useful human capital). By thinking clearly about this, one may realize that perfecting one's ability to differentiate complicated trigonometric function expressions or integrate complicated rational functions may not be valuable from either a human capital perspective or a signaling perspective.

Ultimately, the changes wrought by consciously thinking about these issues are not too dramatic. Even though the System is suboptimal, it's locally optimal in small ways and one is constrained in one's actions in any case. But the changes can nevertheless add up to lead one to be more strategic and less stressed, do better on all fronts (human capital, signaling, and consumption), and discover opportunities one might otherwise have missed.

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