Friday, June 6, 2008

What's The Matter With Kids Today?

Now and then I hear colleagues bemoan the fact that university students are not in class to learn, but to get a grade. I usually remind them that there are three main education hypotheses in economics: human capital, screening, and consumption.

It may be that employers want employees who have abilities (human capital) that they can learn at a university. So students attend universities to build this human capital. Students who believe in the human capital hypothesis want to learn, whether or not they get satisfaction out of the learning process, so they can get good jobs.

It may be that employers do not think that universities can teach the student anything that the student needs. That is, there are good employees and bad employees out there, none of which will be improved by education. But these employers may see a university diploma as proof that the student will be a good employee. The student who has jumped through four years of educational hoops has demonstrated that she will put forth effort in order to perform and does not find learning as painful as the student who did not get the diploma. So that a degree reveals a good employee, but getting the degree does not make a good employee.

Finally, students may be getting a degree because they like education. They do not care about gaining skills to get a better paying job. They do not care about the stamp of approval of a degree. They just love to learn.*

How many of our students have which of the three motivations, and to what extent?

My guess is that 90% of my students firmly believe that education is screening. Some of them also believe in human capital, too--I'd guess 60% of all students believe that they learn useful skills. And I'd say 1% of our students would be at the university if there were no employment enhancement from a university degree, either by screening or by building human capital. That is, 1% of students love to learn.

But since my colleagues were once part of that 1%, they sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that all of their students should be, as well.


*I have somewhat short-changed the consumption hypothesis. It includes the concept that a student may, separate from any love of learning, enjoy being at a university with their peers, joining sororities or fraternities, going to football games, partaking in Guitar Hero contests, etc.

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