Friday, September 09, 2005

Education and social mobility

Chris Bertram makes a normative argument for reducing the importance of college education in the labor market. He argues that requiring college education for certain jobs which obviously don't require a college education introduces unnecessary roadblocks to social mobility. And, further, could be considered a waste. This dove-tails nicely with some economic claims about higher education.

First, economists recognize that for many professions a college education isn't necessary, but that college serves as a "signalling device" to select qualified job applicants: a college education is a useful shorthand for knowing that a person has a set of desirable skills, though a college education isn't necessary to have those skills. Given the amount of expense involved in all this unnecessary (from a purely economic point of view) education, you would predict that over time there would be some institutional change to reduce the importance of education -- though the dynamic path is unclear, for a similar argument applies to, say, racial discrimination. Though this is contingent on employers finding a method of equal expense and effectiveness of selecting employees which doesn't rely on the signal of college education. Given imperfect information and all, I don't see it.

Second, as Paul Krugman argued, over the next century blue collar professions (skilled manual labor) will account for increasing percentages of our economy. And higher education as currently structured does not teach those skills. If Krugman's prediction is right, then you would expect more people opting for vocational schools over university, or vocational schools in addition to university, which provides one mechanism for a dynamic path where you see decreasing university enrollments. In that case, universities would return to their 19th century function as repositiories for the children of the wealthy to become cultured and network.

The two together, then, say that Bertram may well see his wishes come true, though for reasons adjacent to those he states.


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