Credentials are Killing the Classroom

(A slightly tighter, probably better version of this was published for the Freeman.)

I’ve been to a lot of educational seminars put on by organizations like the Foundation for Economic Education and the Institute for Humane Studies, among others.  One thing these events have in common is incredibly high quality participants and deep discussions late into the night.  They tend to be multi-day intellectual feasts that leave you as tired as invigorated, and always challenged in the best of ways.

Nearly every time you hear one or more participants say something like, “This is what I wish college was like!”  The attendees are blown away by the caliber of the content, the professors willingness to engage amicably even in free time, and the intelligence and interest level of the other participants.  Faculty and students alike talk about how these seminars are far better than typical college classes.  This is no accident.

The obvious explanation most people give for this quality differential is self-selection.  Those who choose to give up a week of their summer to discuss ideas – both faculty and students – are high caliber and highly engaged.  This is true so far as it goes, but if we stop there we miss something even more fundamental and profound.  After all, college has self-selection too.  Shouldn’t it be full of professors and students who are earnest truth and knowledge seekers of the finest quality?  Yet college is nothing close to this, but for extremely rare exceptions in one or two classes.  Why does the self-selection only produce quality learning in these seminars?  The reason is right in front of us.

It’s because college offers an official credential and educational experiences outside of college do not.

That’s it.  Everything else is minor compared to this causal factor.  It’s easy to see when you look.  Imagine one of these summer seminars if they offered an official, government-approved piece of paper at the end that most HR departments used as a baseline screen, without which you couldn’t get past the first wave of job applications?  A summer seminar selling a magical ticket to a job that mom, dad, and society would feel proud of would be overwhelmed with attendees.  And most of them wouldn’t give a hoot about what they had to do to get the paper at the end.  Demand for faculty would spike, and most of them would do whatever it took to get the paycheck and quickly retreat to quiet corridors where they could be with their books and the few colleagues that actually care.  It would become, in a word, college.

The evidence is everywhere that the credential is killing the classroom.  I’ve guest taught entry level college classes before.  It’s pretty painful.  Most of the students are half asleep, grumpy, forlorn, texting, and generally inattentive.  I like to joke that if aliens from another planet came down and observed a typical class at a typical university and were asked what they witnessed, they would scan the cinder block and fluorescent room, ponder the pained look on student faces, and conclude it was a penal colony.  Imagine their surprise when told these people are not only here of their own free will, but paying tens of thousands for the suffering!

Not every classroom is that painful, but it’s the rule not the exception.  If you need further proof consider the fact that when class is cancelled everyone is happy, student and professor alike.  What other good can you think of where you pay in advance and are excited when it’s not delivered?  That’s because, much to the confusion of most faculty, the good being sold is not their lectures or the knowledge therein.  None of the students are buying that.  Sure, it’s nice if they get a little enjoyment and knowledge out of the deal, but that’s not why they’re there.  After all, if that’s what they wanted they could simply sit in on classes at will without registering or paying.

They are there for the credential because the credential is a signal to the working world that they are at least slightly better on average than those without it.  That’s it.  In some fields the credential is legally required, and in many others alternative ways to measure competence are illegal, so the signal of a degree retains artificially enhanced value.  Even so, that value is fading.

Large institutions form because transaction costs are high with tons of individuals exchanging goods, services, and information separately.  This is why family name mattered so much in times past.  Economist Ronald Coase famously explained the existence of firms using this basic logic.  It works for universities too.  When it’s hard to prove your worth alone, you get a trusted institution to vouch for you.  It’s s shortcut that reduces risk on the part of those who want to hire you.  But each passing year the value of this institutional reputation-backer declines compared to the available alternatives.  Technology has dramatically reduced information costs so it is now easier than ever to be your own resume.  You can vouch for yourself and create results easily seen by others that can speak for you.  It’s Yelp reviews instead of a few food critics determining whose steak is good.  You can build a better signal than what college is selling.

So long as legal and cultural (we might almost say religious) norms continue to see the degree as the primary signal of value in the marketplace the classroom will continue to decline in quality.  When the majority of students are purchasing one good (the credential) but are made to endure another (the classroom) they will continue to see it as a cost more than a benefit, and behave accordingly, sliding through with minimal pain and suffering.

On the flip side the classroom isn’t doing the credential any favors either.  Even though many still lack the imagination to see the alternatives right in front of them, most employers now admit that a degree signals very little these days.  Everyone has one.  Though there are still sometimes significant qualitative differences, most universities sell as many as they possibly can.  Cases of professors passing bad students and universities passing bad professors are well known, and the clout of the institutions is waning.  Even those who still require a degree ask for much more on top of it, because sitting through a bunch of classes you didn’t care about and doing the minimum amount of passionless hoop-jumping doesn’t convey much about your energy, eagerness, and ability to create value in a dynamic market.

A number of my professor friends sometimes chastise me for what they think are unfair criticisms of college.  Yet what I’m suggesting, that the credential be separated from the classroom, reflects my respect for great professors and the value of their style of education.  It is precisely because classroom learning at its best, like I’ve experienced so many times in those seminars, is so powerful and valuable that I wish to see it no longer destroyed and diminished by artificial attachment to a supposed magic job paper.  The subsidies, loans, restrictions, requirements, licensure laws, as well as the parental and societal worship of college as the great economic security blanket have filled the classroom with so much clutter it’s a rarity for quality interaction to occur.

The exciting thing is that a cleavage between the credential and the classroom is happening right in front of us.  It’s not MOOC’s that will fundamentally change college in countries like the US where access to information is already rich.  That’s just a new delivery system for a current good, and one that most American’s aren’t buying anyway.  The real shift is occurring as fewer and fewer employers look to the degree as the dominant signal, and as more and more young people build their own.

When the dust settles I’d love to see every great teacher and researcher doing their thing with eager audiences who are actually there to purchase that unique product, rather than suffer through it on their way to getting something else they really want.  The host of mediocre faculty will lose, but the good ones will win big, both in economic opportunity and quality of the craft.  So will the young customers who wish to learn from them.