TYLER COWEN: There's lots of evidence that placebos work in medicine; people get well simply because they think they're supposed to.
But we're learning that placebos apply to a lot of other areas and that includes higher education. Schooling works in large part because it makes people feel they've been transformed. Think about it: college graduates earn a lot more than non-graduates, but studying Walt Whitman rarely gets people a job. In reality, the students are jumping through lots of hoops and acquiring a new self-identity.
The educators and the administrators stage a kind of "theater" to convince students that they now belong to an elite group of higher earners. If students believe this story, many of them will then live it.
Dr. Cohen goes about the cost of prestige and status, but I pretty knew how I wanted to respond at this point. After dinner I found the Marketplace site, checked the commenting guidelines and left this comment:
I acknowledge what Dr. Cowen says about the value of confidence and self identity, but higher education is anything but a placebo. Learning itself is a critical skill which is gained through study, and that study might be biology, business, physics, physiology, zoology, or any number of other areas, including Walt Whitman. In a pinch, maybe even economics will do.
A college degree does not mean a student has mastered a subject, rather it is an indication that the student is teachable, and capable of jumping through the higher hoops of their profession.
I figured there was a good chance of this getting selected to be read on the air - because my comment was about the only one under the 150 word limit. I was right too, because I got an email from Alison Gilbert asking if I would record an edited version for broadcast on the letters segment:
Higher Education is anything but a placebo. Learning itself is a critical skill which is gained through study. That study might be biology, business, physics, physiology, zoology – even Walt Whitman. A college degree does not mean a student has mastered a subject, rather it is an indication that the student is teachable and capable of jumping through the higher hoops of their profession.
So there you have, my 15 seconds of fame broadcast for all to hear on the afternoon of Tuesday, September 9th. Tune in your radio or listen in online.
And for the record, I agree with Dr. Cohen that confidence and self image are an important part of education, and that the costs of education are getting out-of-hand. However, education is not a placebo; you just can't fake that.
[UPDATE] Here is a link to the September 8th Letter segment and text.