Education Is About Signals, Not Just Learning and Credentials

Yale University
Yale University

Photo by Christopher Capozziello/Getty Images

Felix Salmon remarked earlier this week that there’s a lot you can learn watching lectures on YouTube in an environment that’s “100% education, 0% credentialing.”

Quite true. But having those two sum up to 100 percent reminds me that when people discuss innovation in the higher education space, they often forget that there’s quite a bit more to the signaling function of higher education than just credentialing. In particular, since going to college is a normal bourgeois thing to do in America in 2013, doing it indicates that you are a normal American who subscribes to normal bourgeois values. A summer intern who’s just finished up her third year at Yale doesn’t have any kind of particular credentials, but we know that she probably has very good SAT scores and sounds like an exceedingly normal person. A young woman who got a 1600 on her SATs and has been spending the past three years working at 7-11 and watching Open Yale Courses videos sounds like a huge weirdo.

And employers seem to genuinely value that “you’re not a weirdo” factor. There’s nothing stopping firms from attempting to recruit 18-year-olds with high SAT scores to work for low salaries in trainee positions rather than those deeply in debt from going to college. But essentially nobody tries the alternative method of education. Not necessarily because it’s an inherently terrible idea, but because given the status quo, only a weirdo would say yes to that proposition and people are generally trying not to bring weirdos into their workplaces.