Overcoming the negative signal of not attending college.

post by James_Miller · 2011-02-16T20:13:12.500Z · score: 10 (16 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 47 comments

The signaling view of college holds that graduates of elite colleges earn high average salaries not because of what they learned in school  but rather because top colleges select for students who have highly valued traits, the two most important probably being high IQ and strong work ethic.  Since in rich countries almost every smart, hard working person attends college not going to college sends a loud negative signal to potential employers.  Elite colleges, of course, are fantastically expensive signaling devices.

 

Although I teach at an elite college I have a proposal for an alternate much less expensive and probably even more accurate signaling mechanism.  An organization could have a one month program which only admits those who get a high score on the SATs or some other intelligence test.  Then the entire program would consist of spending sixteen hours a day solving by hand simple addition and subtraction problems.  The point of the program would be to show that its graduates can spend a huge amount of time doing extremely boring tasks with high accuracy.   Graduating from the program would signal that you had both a high IQ and strong work ethic.

 

If the program had a reputation for graduating valuable employees then I suspect it would become desirable to many recent high school graduates.  The challenge would be for the program to initially earn its reputation.  Perhaps it could accomplish this by having some well-known backers, by giving big cash grants to its first few graduates or by promising the first few graduates attractive jobs such as at the SIAI.  

47 comments

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comment by Vladimir_M · 2011-02-17T02:50:49.486Z · score: 17 (19 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Besides the already mentioned issues, there are at least two very important ones.

First, one important thing that a university diploma signals is the ability to behave in proper ways that are demanded in professional situations, and to credibly maintain this appearance for several years. In particular, one of my pet hypotheses is that the notoriously high level of political correctness on campuses in fact serves a useful signaling role for employers. Even very productive and capable employees can end up as a net loss if they say or do something stupid that results in a harassment or discrimination lawsuit -- and people are much less likely to blunder in these ways if they have passed through several years of scrutiny by an institution that penalizes any indication of propensity for such excesses and relentlessly warns and propagandizes its students about how evil and dangerous they are.

Of course, another thing that universities are in the business of selling is the opportunity to mingle and make connections with high-status people, as well as the inherent increase in status that comes from the affiliation with a high-status institution. Status in human relations is often not reducible to a matter of signaling other traits, and the fact that universities currently possess high status and the power of bestowing it mean that they have control of an inherently scarce and fixed-sum resource, so they're impossible to undercut barring some very great social changes.

comment by komponisto · 2011-02-17T14:12:46.788Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Of course, another thing that universities are in the business of selling is the opportunity to mingle and make connections with high-status people, as well as the inherent increase in status that comes from the affiliation with a high-status institution. Status in human relations is often not reducible to a matter of signaling other traits, and the fact that universities currently possess high status and the power of bestowing it mean that they have control of an inherently scarce and fixed-sum resource, so they're impossible to undercut barring some very great social changes.

This is right on the mark, in my opinion.

comment by jsalvatier · 2011-02-16T20:38:02.191Z · score: 9 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Have you read Bryan Caplan on this topic? The main problem he brings up is that such alternative schemes also signal weirdness, which many employers do not want.

comment by James_Miller · 2011-02-16T20:42:35.531Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I do read Caplan's blog. Some employers probably don't mind weirdness plus if my idea ever took off doing it wouldn't be considered weird. Being weird is probably considered a negative trait because you won't conform to what your boss would expect you to do, but anyone who graduated from my program would in a big way have signaled their ability to do what others ask of them.

comment by SilasBarta · 2011-02-17T04:35:47.635Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Heh, I read his blog too, and I think I even suggested something like your idea, even addressing the people who were making some of the same objections here. (Not to claim credit or anything -- this is the clear implication of the highly successful signaling model of college.)

The idea is to give the signal that good colleges are able to imbue in students, without all the cost. Once you see that, a lot of the objections fall away. The question remains, though, about whether this would actually signal good qualities for the students, which requires overcoming be absurdity heuristic on the part of employers.

comment by saturn · 2011-02-17T02:34:11.040Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I suspect (some) people do learn one important lesson at elite colleges—how to look and act like a member of the elite.

comment by Perplexed · 2011-02-17T02:53:27.083Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

the entire program would consist of spending sixteen hours a day solving by hand simple addition and subtraction problems.

I would suggest that they instead spend that time developing a programming language compiler or interpreter. Or creating a grass-roots political organization. Or a new marketing approach. Or writing a popular blog. Or gaining fame, power, or money in any of a thousand other creative ways.

comment by Marius · 2011-02-17T16:06:58.738Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This suggestion is good for two reasons. First, real-world tasks such as programming, starting a business, etc. do require an ability to perform drudgework, but don't intentionally introduce it. By creating something of value, one demonstrates the ability to buckle down and deal with setbacks far more convincingly than a monthlong program ever could. At the same time, one demonstrates ingenuity and drive. Second, the initial idea lacks one very important factor: "how do we get there". A good idea can't just be good once achieved. It must also contain a reasonable path towards its achievement. It seems rather unlikely that most businesses would want to hire the graduates of a monthlong addition program for reasons described by many other posters.

Innovation has one disadvantage: it is risky. A failed attempt will look a lot like slacking, and provide negative signals to potential employers.

A third suggestion that lies between this one and the OP's would be to find a job immediately after school. Traditionally, most such jobs are for less-intelligent applicants. It would be reasonable for a high-status employer to create a program that hires high-SAT highschool graduates to work on marginal projects at a low salary for a year, with the understanding that those who performed well would receive not only experience but also a good recommendation for future employers. The benefit to the employer would primarily not be direct profit, but rather a pipeline to hire the best of these intelligent students.

comment by rwallace · 2011-02-17T00:40:24.116Z · score: 7 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think we all know that this would send negative signals, whatever the reason why.

How about this for a possible variant: Six months doing actual useful work. In my own field, this could consist of clearing some to-do list items for an open source software project. Perhaps experts in other intellectual domains could suggest similar tasks.

This would have the following advantages:

  1. Much better general signaling properties. (Again, regardless of the reasons why, I think we all know that this would be the case.)

  2. You'd learn something in the process. (College isn't only about signaling, after all.)

  3. You'd get to demonstrate relevant skills as well as the ability to put in long hours; the quality of your work could be assessed.

  4. And of course, actual useful work would get done.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-09-11T11:09:21.334Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

How about this for a possible variant: Six months doing actual useful work. In my own field, this could consist of clearing some to-do list items for an open source software project.

I'm not familiar with the industry, so please excuse me if this is a silly questions, but dosen't work on open source projects already help you with signalling competence? And if it dosen't, why is this so? Are there cases of autodidacts who marshal up a impressive enough portfolio of such contributions that they can get hired into entry positions (and later advanced based on their achievements there) without a degree?

comment by pengvado · 2011-09-11T20:11:48.797Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Freelance programmer here. I do have a college degree, but most (all?) of the jobs I take are from people who find me solely through my open source work, and most of them don't even ask about any other qualifications I might have before offering the job, and I had a sufficient portfolio to attract such offers before I graduated. Otoh, I've never applied for a job, only waited for companies to initiate contact; maybe it's different in the other direction.

comment by CronoDAS · 2011-02-17T18:13:52.385Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

My suggestion:

Instead of having them spend that month doing arithmetic, make them write something that's, say, 50,000 words long. As far as I can tell, the most important non-technical skill that someone is supposed to learn in college is how to write - and it's amazing how many people can't do it.

comment by Alicorn · 2011-02-17T18:44:47.105Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It never occurred to me to consider completion of NaNoWriMo a credential, but now that I think of it, it actually is.

comment by jmmcd · 2011-02-17T20:44:34.520Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I know someone who works in HR/recruitment and she told me that having a marathon or similar achievement on your CV makes a big impression on recruiters.

comment by Zack_M_Davis · 2011-02-17T20:15:28.202Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Speaking as a two-time NaNoWriMo winner myself (2009: Not Taking This Seriously, 2010: Kevin Levitin and the Special Snowflake Syndrome), I don't consider it an impressive credential. Writing something good during NaNoWriMo is impressive, but merely generating the 50,000 words is not difficult as long as you keep a sufficiently low quality standard.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-02-17T00:37:48.339Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

or by promising the first few graduates attractive jobs such as at the SIAI.

The SIAI is that attractive? To ambitious high IQ elite students? That sounds surprising to me.

comment by Normal_Anomaly · 2011-02-16T20:47:00.646Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's also possible that colleges signal other things besides IQ and work ethic. At least some employers (in the sciences, maybe) are looking for traits like curiosity and the ability to think clearly. In which case, spending a month doing repetitive tasks would be a negative signal. Creative or intellectually curious people would be less likely than average to be psychologically able to "spend a huge amount of time doing extremely boring tasks with high accuracy."

Of course, for many jobs IQ and work ethic are by far the most important things. This program probaby would be a good signal for those jobs if it was well established enough not to trip employers' absurdity heuristic.

comment by David_Gerard · 2011-02-16T22:38:56.281Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The main thing it is used for is to show that you can sit down to do a task that takes three or four years and actually finish it.

The other thing it is used for is as a handy way to cull that gigantic pile of resumes. Hence job requirements inflation.

comment by James_Miller · 2011-02-16T21:04:09.103Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why does getting admitted to a college signal creativity? If anything being admitted to an elite college means you got all As in high school by doing exactly what your teachers wanted.

As Edison wrote "Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." My graduates would show that they could do the 99% part so perhaps have signaled their high capacity for creativity?

If colleges teach you how to think clearly than the signaling view of college is false and my proposed program is worthless. Your IQ is your ability to process complex information so if colleges don't raise IQs knowing someone graduated from college should tell you nothing about their ability to think clearly if you already know their IQ.

comment by gwern · 2011-02-16T21:57:24.870Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

A creative person would be driven nigh to insanity by such a program, the reasoning goes. So only uncreative types would apply.

If applying is strong evidence for being uncreative, then by Bayes, not-applying* is weak evidence for being creative.

* Such as by applying instead to a college.

comment by James_Miller · 2011-02-16T22:49:36.007Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

A creative person with a long-term orientation might love the program because it would allow him to quickly start his life and avoid all the not-necessarily interesting work he would normally have to do in college.

comment by SRStarin · 2011-02-16T21:49:30.527Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think your proposed program would not be valuable because colleges do, for the most part, make available the skills for thinking and communicating more clearly. And getting a degree does, for the most part, mean that the person is capable of sustained, organized work on challenging tasks that require creative application of a large skill set. In other words, they can be successful at a profession.

All colleges are going to have some bad students, and some of those students will be able to cheat their way through without learning much. But most professors want to see both creativity and diligence in their students' work, and they grade accordingly. (I should note that my university experiences are mostly large state universities. I don't have much exposure to elite schools or the students that attended them.)

In my experience, smart people who try college and don't finish (for reasons other than financial or the like) are not very good at working for others. They sometimes make great entrepreneurs, but I wouldn't want them working for me until they'd built up a lot of real world experience and demonstrated they can succeed. Smart people who never go to college I don't have much experience with

comment by James_Miller · 2011-02-16T22:12:41.508Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If your first paragraph is correct then the signaling model of education is false and my program wouldn't/shouldn't succeed.

comment by grouchymusicologist · 2011-02-17T00:11:33.104Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The signaling model of education is surely neither 100% false nor 100% true, therefore it seems likely that your program would serve its function (getting certain kinds of people employed) better than no college and worse than completing college.

(Maybe this belongs in a separate comment, but I would add the further remark that your program works only if prospective employers are comfortable with and self-aware about the fact that they consider education to serve a purely signaling function. Since I think very few employers are really comfortable openly saying that they think college is not by and large a value-added proposition, I don't think your plan would work on a very large scale.)

comment by SRStarin · 2011-02-17T20:15:49.669Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree with grouchy. I want to make the additional point that just because an activity or article of clothing or whatever has signaling value, that doesn't mean it can't have any intrinsic value. A Gucci purse still holds your car keys.

I think it is possible that the signaling model of higher education is more in play for the elite schools, as I have certainly read writers who had first-hand experience and claim as much. The signaling model would explain the much higher price tag for an Ivy League education.

Still, any college with anywhere decent facilities and at least a few good professors has enough for a determined and healthy person to get an education that will make them a more effective, interesting, productive, sociable, and thoughtful person. Those are all traits employers want, but are not easy to identify in applications or interviews. So, a college degree is pretty good evidence of progress in that direction.

comment by Perplexed · 2011-02-17T17:08:08.030Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

In some professions, an employer will accept three years of experience in lieu of a college degree, and in some professions they won't. So, I would suggest that the most productive way to continue this conversation would be to provide one or more answers to the following two questions.

  • In what profession is experience treated as being as good or better than a degree?
  • How can you gain that experience and get paid doing it?

Three possible answers to the first question are journalist, restaurant chef, and computer programmer. Some corresponding answers to the second question should be obvious. A fourth answer to the first question would be political campaign operative. I don't know of a corresponding answer to the second question for that profession. (Maybe start out in paid interest-group fund-raising?)

Any other answer pairs?

comment by Vladimir_M · 2011-02-17T17:39:06.637Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Perplexed:

In some professions, an employer will accept three years of experience in lieu of a college degree, and in some professions they won't.

Clearly, this is impossible in professions that are organized as powerful guilds, assuming the guild imposes formal credentials as a condition of professional licencing, which is the case for pretty much all high-status professional guilds.

Thus in computer industry one sees quite a few professionals of high rank and/or expertise without a university degree, but this is absolutely unimaginable in law or medicine.

comment by Perplexed · 2011-02-17T18:15:12.908Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

professionals of high rank and/or expertise without a university degree, but this is absolutely unimaginable in law or medicine.

I believe you are wrong about law - at least in many states in the US. Though you certainly won't become a partner at a top firm without college and law degrees.

comment by Vladimir_M · 2011-02-17T18:45:16.638Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Perplexed:

I believe you are wrong about law - at least in many states in the US.

I stand corrected, then. (And I'm happy to see another example of historical vestiges that still have some life in them!) I was going by the Canadian regulations, which allow no such thing.

Of course, even in the U.S. it's nowadays a rare thing, and as you say, it's not a realistic path towards high status in the profession. Whereas in the computer industry, both Microsoft and Apple were founded by college dropouts (and the latter is still headed by one).

comment by mkehrt · 2011-02-17T17:33:49.499Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

For anyone high up in a political campaign, I imagine one can volunteer quite a bit to work their way in. I also know someone who tried to do this by working as a local canvasser, but those are apparently low wage jobs with no clear path to advance up the chain.

comment by knb · 2011-02-17T03:57:36.878Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I strongly approve of the idea. Of course people who hire are also interested in other traits besides intelligence and conscientiousness. So I propose that the course also have a requirement of dressing appropriately (in a formal business suit, for example) every day for "class", and tests of etiquette and general pleasantness.

A possible limitation I see is that a certain "style" or attitude is often needed for a given field. This is often unstated, and just something you have to notice. One of my professors and I were talking about working with corporate recruiters. She mentioned that recruiters are often noticeably more attractive than average, and in my experience that is true. I don't know why, but almost every recruiter I've met has been a very attractive woman.

comment by Emile · 2011-02-16T21:45:14.798Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Doing very boring tasks whose only purpose is to have something to brag about is not very glamorous - it doesn't sound like the kind of thing either employers or employees would want to be associated to.

The idea could probably be tweaked though (replace the multiplications by something equally challenging but that at least looks kinda useful), but it seems that a tweaked version is pretty close to what a lot of people do: an unpaid internship at a prestigious company.

Also, you make no mention of social/leadership skills, and college extracurricular activities are important indicators of those, whereas your proposal very clearly isn't.

comment by James_Miller · 2011-02-16T22:08:32.363Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

My program would only work if lots of people who had high IQs would be unwilling to finish the program even if graduating from the program would significantly benefit your career so it wouldn't be comparable to an unpaid internship.

Leadership/social activities don't have to be tied to academics. Given that my graduates would save a huge amount of time and money they would have even more opportunities for "extracurriculars" than traditional college students do.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-02-16T22:10:04.773Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Also, you make no mention of social/leadership skills, and college extracurricular activities are important indicators of those, whereas your proposal very clearly isn't.

Oh, I don't know... the first participant to lead a successful revolt against the stultifying curriculum might earn some reputation that way.

comment by Vladimir_M · 2011-02-16T20:52:56.849Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

James_Miller:

An organization could have a one month program which only admits those who get a high score on the SATs or some other intelligence test.

This would indeed be profitable, but only for unsuccessful applicants and their lawyers. Search for "disparate impact" if you don't know what I'm talking about.

There is of course also the issue of signaling weirdness that another commenter has already raised.

comment by James_Miller · 2011-02-16T21:07:03.910Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

But colleges use SAT scores in admittance and don't get frequently sued. My program could always have an affirmative action admittance component to compensate for the harm negative childhood environments can inflict on an applicant's ability to perform well on the SATs.

comment by Vladimir_M · 2011-02-17T04:31:11.124Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

James_Miller:

But colleges use SAT scores in admittance and don't get frequently sued.

The legal precedent in this area is very complex and by no means characterized by objective, clearly formulated, and uniform standards. You definitely cannot assume that the same standards apply to different institutions so that it's possible to reason by such straightforward analogy. I am not a lawyer, but I am virtually certain that according to the existing U.S. law, a private employer cannot evade the liability for illicit means of employee screening such as IQ tests just by outsourcing them to another institution that's in the business of providing them, or otherwise these requirements would have no teeth in practice.

Now, some people argue that universities and other official accredited educational institutions are in reality to a large degree in the business of providing such outsourced services, only in an obfuscated, roundabout, and inefficient way, and you seem to agree with this to some extent. However, this is indicative of the privilege enjoyed by these institutions, not of an opportunity for others to attempt innovative alternatives to what they do.

comment by Nornagest · 2011-02-16T21:18:26.008Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's hard to prove that the alleged bias in the SATs contributed to an applicant's rejection when the admissions process also includes factors as subjective as an admittance committee's reaction to a personal essay. But it's much easier when the admittance criterion is the SAT or an equivalent intelligence test and nothing else.

comment by James_Miller · 2011-02-16T21:27:36.490Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The Davidson Institute for Talent Development only admits children with IQ test scores in the 99.9th percentile. If they are not getting sued then my program should be safe.

comment by Vladimir_M · 2011-02-17T02:24:08.269Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

James_Miller:

But colleges use SAT scores in admittance and don't get frequently sued.

Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi. Like the academia, the U.S. armed forces also use what are de facto IQ tests in recruiting, but it doesn't mean that private employers would be allowed to do it. This whole field of law is a complex muddle that takes experts to navigate safely, with legal standards based on vague phrases that can be twisted to reach almost any desired conclusion in any particular case if one is so inclined. (How would you objectively determine what counts as "demonstrably a reasonable measure of job performance," and what doesn't?) In such a situation, it's not surprising that high-status institutions can get away with much more than others.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-02-16T23:25:08.886Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have a pretty poor work ethic for boring things--college is fun and I like doing most of the work, but I couldn't bear adding and subtracting meaningless numbers for hours. That may or may not be typical of college students, but college probably signals something more like (general work ethic) x (interest + talent in specific field), while this would signal (general work ethic) x (tolerance for repetitive, boring tasks), which would have its own uses but doesn't necessarily apply to many jobs that usually require degrees.

comment by Raemon · 2011-02-16T22:25:06.093Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Even assuming all your givens, why would this be a better alternative to college at signaling? College already works. And also sometimes teaches you stuff also. Prestigious schools are expensive because they have a high reputation, thus demand for their signaling is greater and they can afford to charge more. If you could simply inject signaling value into a program, you could just pick a random already-existing, cheaper college and do it with them, avoiding all the weirdness signaling that'd be going on here.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-02-17T00:39:27.148Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Even assuming all your givens, why would this be a better alternative to college at signaling?

Efficiency. If a comparable screening procedure can be performed in one month then that is years of time saved.

comment by Raemon · 2011-02-17T02:57:36.274Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Except there's a difference between dedicating your life to something for a month (Which you can often do without burning out) and doing so for years at a time.

The college I went to essentially had 40 hour work weeks and no summer vacation. I think that accomplished the "demonstrate work ethic" goal just fine. Plus I was actually learning things the whole time.

comment by James_Miller · 2011-02-16T22:47:14.857Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The key part of the program is the 16 hours a day of simple math. A cheaper college could, of course, do this.

It's a better alternative to college mainly because it's cheaper.

comment by Clippy · 2011-02-17T19:58:21.049Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I already solved this problem. See my article. Just use that method, using the mentioned cryptographic protocols for privacy and authentication of the transmission, and make the message include a statement of your test scores plus whatever punishment regime is necessary to make you hirable. It's very simple.

comment by mkehrt · 2011-02-17T07:31:23.542Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think I am at least a standard deviation out on this, but my college experience had a lot of very good both theoretical and practical training which served me extremely well as a grad student and is continuing to do so in my current job. While I could imagine having done it in less than four years, the idea of learning all that I did and getting the practice applying it that I did in less than two or three years is insane. While college does have a very high signaling value, it can also be very good at what it is nominally for: teaching students. Although individuals looking to get the best jobs may find that the signaling value is what matters in achieving that goal, on a society wide level, it probably makes more sense to spend effort on increasing the quality of education.

That being said, don't underestimate the other reasons that people of most classes in the US go to college, namely, the social experience both for itself and for networking later in life.