kitchen table math, the sequel: Diminishing marginal returns

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Diminishing marginal returns

An interesting hypothesis  
My hypothesis is that it is precisely the dumbing down of U.S. education over the last decades that explains the increase in willingness to pay for education. The mechanism is diminishing marginal returns to education. Typical graduate business school education has indeed become less rigorous over time, as has typical college education. But typical high school education has declined in quality just as much. As a result, the human capital difference between a college and high-school graduate has increased, because the first increments of education are more valuable on the job market than the later ones. It used to be that everybody could read and understand something like Orwell’s Animal Farm, but the typical college graduates could also understand Milton or Spencer. Now, nobody grasps Milton but only the college grads can process Animal Farm, and for employers the See Spot Run–>Animal Farm jump is more valuable than the Animal Farm–>Milton jump.
The author goes on to suggest that the signalling value of a college education is actually declining as well - something which tracks with a notion that I've been noodling with that online higher-education (really online certification) will start breaking down the existing higher-education structure very soon.

Once that happens - and I think it will happen - I tend to think that such a seismic shift might make it easier to add rigor back to the lower forms of schooling.  Am I hopelessly optimistic?


SteveH said...

Does anyone know how MITx is progressing? Online education generally does not have a great reputation. It seems to me that the seismic shift would driven by whether a high quality alternative can be had online. I can see small support communities being built up around the country to help with the process. How difficult will it be to show that these graduates offer just as much as those who actually attend the schools? Will the credential be accepted?

Bostonian said...

When/if Google and Facebook start hiring smart high school graduates based on credentials from MITx, Coursera, or similar institutions, I think some students interested in tech careers will bypass the 4-year degree. Already some tech companies try to recruit college students for permanent jobs when they are only freshman or sophomores, according to a recent WSJ article "Revenge of the Nerds: Tech Firms Scour College Campuses for Talent".

Jen said...

I think, if anything, that online education will be the final umm, signal? in this process.

That is, that people can be certified online when they know...nothing. Or nothing that it can be verified that that individual has actually done and understood.

People who have the willpower, interest, and tenacity to complete online education courses well are people who have ALREADY learned how to learn, have already made the jump to Animal Farm. They are people who can get past the problem that you can do 6 other things while watching a video that you can't do while being lectured to by a real person.

When many people are being certified and have no usable skills or knowledge, that may be what finally drives education to some sort of true change.

And no, I don't see that happening soon, sadly.

Jo Anne C said...

"Online education generally does not have a great reputation"

I would expect universities & state colleges to do everything necessary to maintain their reputations above encroaching on line programs.

I personally am rooting for excellent on line colleges to become the reality.

I was thrilled with N's online K-12 curriculum. Interestingly he read Animal Farm this year in 8th grade through his online program. The program also offers real History (not social studies), Art History, GRAMMAR, Composition, excellent reading selections, - the content of each subject was fantastic. I am sure N is at least one year or perhaps 2 years ahead of the local public school system (general population), thanks to online education.

The elite might continue to sniff at on line education at the college level, but at the K-12 level they would be wise to take note of the content difference offered between online and public school systems (at least here in CA).

lgm said...

Yep, you are optomistic. K-12 is deep into the politics of equality - to paraphrase our principal, 'no child is going to get ahead on the school's dime'. Rigor is something for elitists. Outside course providers are needed for that level, just as athletes and musicians find private coaches and lesson-givers. The masses are to get the full inclusion course where a nonEnglish speaking, IQ 80+ student, with disabilities can earn a 100. In our elementary that translates to 4 of the 13 chapters in the math text, 2 review, 2 new & the 2 new are gutted. Since we aren't brand new to the country, we are considered affluent and really should consider private school, in their mind. I think that shift would happen here if school taxes weren't so high or if the money could follow the unclassified child to the school that can meet his academic needs.