Friday, January 6, 2012

the college "bubble" continued

So here's this chart, via Yglesias. (I don't know the original source of the chart.) It shows that, as you'd expect, the recent growth in employment is concentrated among college graduates. This is both unsurprising and sad, and based on conditions both fair and unfair. Anyway, that's the reality: it's good to have a college degree.



A few months ago, some bloggers and online chatterers decided that there was a college bubble, and that getting your degree was no longer important or worthwhile. I choose the word "decided" carefully. This story was never really based on evidence. It was really a matter of conjecture and narrative. As was pointed out at the time, empirical studies that specifically controlled for selection bias have consistently found a significant college wage premium. Yet over and over again, bloggers and online opinion writers pushed the narrative that college was a poor investment. I remember Tyler Cowen, at the time, naturally asked what particular methodological criticisms these bloggers had with the extant research, but he never seemed to receive an adequate response. (Sorry for the lack of link, I can't find the post I'm looking for.) Maybe the college wage premium will be found empirically to have dissolved, and I've said many times that undergraduate education is ludicrously expensive. I've also offered many suggestions for why that is and how it can be changed. For now, though, the evidence is still that college is a wise investment in the contemporary American economy.

I was going to start linking to prominent examples of this phenomenon, but I gave up after seeing the dozens I had to choose from. You couldn't swing your arm without hitting a blogger making this dubious assertion. But why?

I'm on record as saying that I think that journalism and the professional opinion making professions are in a kind of resentful turf war with the academy over who gets to make knowledge and who gets to pursue the truth. I also think that a lot of this attitude was straightforwardly driven by bias and interested parties; many conservatives and libertarians distrust and resent the university generally, and the people who populate college faculties. There was always a lot of wishful thinking in the insistence on a college bubble. You would have hoped, though, that the consistent findings of empirical evidence would have splashed cold water on this phenomenon. But once it got rolling, nobody seemed able to stop it with reference to the real world. Enough connected and influential people wanted it to be true, so they represented it as true.

Blogging gets criticized often for being too meta or navel-gazing. Yet I confess that I don't see enough consideration of this kind of issue, the odd ways in which likeminded bloggers share bad ideas and justify poor reasoning. I still find a profound lack of bloggers asking simple questions: how do we as bloggers make knowledge? What are the internal systems of accountability to keep us from getting things wrong? What checks and balances work within blogging to orient us towards truth and to punish getting it wrong? What constitutes a settled argument? How do you know success when you find it? What mechanisms ensure reconsideration of received wisdom and previous opinion?

There are many, many problems with the way that universities generate knowledge. I could recount a host of pathologies within the system to you. But I also know that there is a mechanism for accountability, that it is regular and systematized, that it is inadequately but genuinely tied towards professional advancement, and that there are baked-in elements of critique and reform that can, if we're lucky, fix the things that are broken. I just don't see anything similar in blogging, and worse, I see widespread defensiveness and resistance from bloggers when the subject comes up.

Update: The inevitable whinge from the well-remunerated but wildly sensitive professional Matt Yglesias: "Certainly Freddie could stand to interrogate his own extremely sloppy analysis offered in that post."


As I thought I made clear, I am not offering an argument for a college wage premium in this post. I am pointing out that peer-reviewed, empirical literature that specifically corrects for selection bias has found a consistent and large college wage premium. I'm not trying to prove that myself, as a blog post is a poor forum for such a thing. Indeed, blog posts are poor for proving many kinds of claims. As Yglesias's output proves, they typically house those claims that are specious, purely speculative, and driven by personal resentment. Yglesias and people like him have exploited a unique historical moment in order to get paid to throw out wild speculation without accountability or evidence.

If Yglesias wants to challenge those peer-reviewed studies, he should generate empirical scholarship of his own, or he should find and identify specific disqualifying methodological issues within them. He won't, though, because he can't, because he has no formal training or qualifications whatsoever beyond his Harvard philosophy degree. An impressive achievement that I respect, by the way, tempered only by the knowledge that Yglesias has lived a life of affluence and privilege, attending high-profile and extremely expensive private academies, which according to both anecdote and empirical study confer massive benefits in gaining entry into the world of elite colleges.

Update: But then, I'm also overreacting. You know how I am.

In unrelated news, I hate the Internet.

20 comments:

Fake Herzog said...

Maybe all those bloggers have been writing about the bubble because it is a worthy subject to blog about, despite your superficial analysis. Yes, many folks with college degrees are doing O.K., but what about the guy with the Masters in Puppetry? And the graph you need is the employment rate of college grads over time. As Professor Harlan explains in this short article, when you subsidize something, its price becomes inflated and its quality declines:

http://washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/columnists/2011/12/sunday-reflection-higher-ed-bubble-bursting-so-what-comes-next/1969376
The real question is how do we get employers to stop using a college degree as a signaling device? For example, how many programmers really needed to go to college or could have just learned code from a couple of classes and/or on the job? They are probably doing O.K. from a ROI standpoint, but they could be doing even better.

Captain Adventure said...

The original source of the chart is me. I made it. And nothing in the chart helps us understand whether the success of college graduates is a treatment effect or a selection effect, and is therefore irrelevant to the "bubble" issue.

Freddie said...

No, but a large body of peer-reviewed empirical literature, specifically designed to address selection effects, has consistently found a significant college wage premium. That's the reality of the scholarship. If you dispute it, you should produce new, better scholarship of your own, or identify specific and disqualifying methodological critiques of those studies.

Matthew Yglesias said...

Hey there Mr Crankypants. Do you have examples of me espousing the view you're criticizing here?

Freddie said...

Dude: I wasn't talking about you! I was referring to your post positively! Jeepers. I'm talking about McArdle, and Thiel, and Indiviglio, et al. OK?

Matthew Yglesias said...

I'm sorry, I took the sentence "If Yglesias wants to challenge those peer-reviewed studies, he should generate empirical scholarship of his own, or he should find and identify specific disqualifying methodological issues within them" to be indicating that you were, in fact, talking about me.

But for my part, the reason I haven't sought to challenge any studies identifying a treatment aspect to the college wage premium is that I don't disagree with them.

Where you and I perhaps disagree is that I don't think this is the end of the story. The fact that there's a college wage premium is consistent with the belief that the higher education system is operating with a basically unsustainable business model that's likely to crash in the reasonably near future.

Freddie said...

OK, look. I referenced your post, and that chart, as evidence-- limited, I freely admit-- that college pays, although as I said, the larger point is that the empirical case has been made in substantive scholarship.

I understand, given my usual antagonism, why you'd think that I was going after you, but when I referred to conservative and libertarian bloggers, I meant it. Now, you're perfectly free to find my post unimpressive, and to say so on Twitter. As is my policy, I hit back, and yes, in the update I was referring to you, in reaction to the Tweet. But I suppose I shouldn't have assume that your claim that my post was shitty was driven by a disagreement on that issue. There are a lot of reasons you might think my post is shitty.

Sincerely yours,

Crankypants

kris said...

I think we can all agree that colleges are spending too much -and at a rate that is increasing too much- on non-educational expenses, e.g. the physical campus, sports teams, computer labs, career counseling, and layer upon layer of administration.

At some point parents and students will wake up and realize that paying professor's salaries is cheap, while going to college is incredibly expensive. When they do that, there may be some sort of "bubble-bursting" along the lines Yglesias is hinting at.

Nonetheless, I agree with Freddie that parents and students will continue to see a value in college -in terms of not just money, but also virtue, and happiness. Post secondary education just can't be replaced by learning at home.

Yglesias may have learned some wonkish things after he left school, but there are some topics that are nearly impossible to learn adequately without a proper professor. And really, most people need the discipline of the academy to learn in a truly in-depth way. (Not all people.) This is why most thinkers outside of the academy are dilettantes.

Is Yglesias not a dilettante in any way? Certainly he is a dilitante in all matters pertaining to economics and philosophy.

There is nothing wrong with being a dilitant, mind you, as long as people prefer to read the work of actual experts. Of course, bloggers are often more expert than journalists and MSM opinion writers: the truest dilletantes.

kris said...

Please excuse my dilitatnt spelling.

Anonymous said...

Well paying blue collar jobs are disappearing due to the pressures of anti-union politicians and "free trade".
White collar jobs, in many respects, remain behind a protectionist curtain (cf Dean Baker on this).
Thus many would like to get that shingle/credential and join the protected class.
This shifts the demand curve out.
This leads to higher prices for the shingle.
People willingly, and rationally, pay it.

Yeggie notwithstanding, this model has legs as long as the politics continue to prevail.

Please excuse this post. My degree is in poli sci/economics. Thanks.

Evan Harper said...

Was the missing Cowen link maybe: this?

"There really does seem to be a professional consensus. Maybe it's wrong, and/or dominated by biased pro-education specialists, but I’m not seeing very strong arguments against it. For the time being at least, I don't see that there is much anywhere else to go with one’s beliefs."

Freddie said...

Yes! Thanks.

Ethan Hoddes said...

Look, to adopt your point on Sullivan about something more serious, if you want credit for taking on 'establishment' bloggers, you need to be honest about what you've actually said. You've not explained how "If Yglesias wants to challenge those peer-reviewed studies, he should generate empirical scholarship of his own, or he should find and identify specific disqualifying methodological issues within them" makes any sense if you aren't saying that he in fact has made the claims you attribute to 'some bloggers'. Furthermore, in a post attacking the position of 'some bloggers' you don't just not link to the posts you're talking about, you name only two actual bloggers, Tyler Cowan, who you identify as opposing the position of 'some bloggers' and Matt Yglesias. If you really didn't intend people to think that you meant yglesias to be one of the 'some bloggers' than you're an uncommonly bad writer.

Jon said...

Fake, as a programmer who managed to get double-major of sorts in Economics/Business, I have survived long enough (23 years) since as a full-time programmer to recognize that the the benefits of the BS is not that I left the commencement stage with a diploma that documented by expertise in that field, because it it didn't. Rather, it documented a certain ability to pass through a gauntlet of courses that I could only be passed had I understood, at some level, the importance of learning, gained a modicum of habituation with learning, and assuaged the all too common anxiety about learning that is the only real barrier to gaining its fruits.

You can target the most maligned among majors and claim their lack of application to the 'real world.' But, in doing so, you show that you've really missed the point.

I've seen too many of those without some successful college experience burn themselves into a limited holding pattern applying little creativity, next to zero 'care' , and even less critical analysis.

I cannot comment on an individual's ROI (in the field, wage is largely a matter of negotiation, and college grad's have more leverage) but I'm convinced that shops that hire college grad's are more productive with those investments.

Freddie said...

Look, to adopt your point on Sullivan about something more serious, if you want credit for taking on 'establishment' bloggers, you need to be honest about what you've actually said. You've not explained how "If Yglesias wants to challenge those peer-reviewed studies, he should generate empirical scholarship of his own, or he should find and identify specific disqualifying methodological issues within them" makes any sense if you aren't saying that he in fact has made the claims you attribute to 'some bloggers'. Furthermore, in a post attacking the position of 'some bloggers' you don't just not link to the posts you're talking about, you name only two actual bloggers, Tyler Cowan, who you identify as opposing the position of 'some bloggers' and Matt Yglesias. If you really didn't intend people to think that you meant yglesias to be one of the 'some bloggers' than you're an uncommonly bad writer.

Where, in the original post, do I attribute this attitudes to Yglesias at all? Certainly, approvingly linking to a chart he posted doesn't constitute an implication! Perhaps you are an uncommonly bad reader, hmm?

Anonymous said...

Your last paragraph is why more people don't read you. You just can't resist going personal. Let me ask you something. What is your background? Are you someone totallty non-privileged? Is your father a coal-miner from West Virginia or something? I bet you grew up middle class. just like most of the bloggers you're constantly spitting on because they're so privileged. I never understand this idea that Yglesias somehow grew up rich or something, his dad wrote some books and screenplays, but he's hardly Jonathan Franzen-famous, or whichever famous Hollywood screenwriter-famous. I've never heard of him at all before I read Yglesias. Sure, he probably made a nice living, but it's not like Yglesias is Bill Gates' son or Jamie Dimon's son. But to read people like you, Yglesias must have grew up in a golden castle or something.

Anonymous said...

Your last paragraph is why more people don't read you. You just can't resist going personal. Let me ask you something. What is your background? Are you someone totallty non-privileged? Is your father a coal-miner from West Virginia or something? I bet you grew up middle class. just like most of the bloggers you're constantly spitting on because they're so privileged. I never understand this idea that Yglesias somehow grew up rich or something, his dad wrote some books and screenplays, but he's hardly Jonathan Franzen-famous, or whichever famous Hollywood screenwriter-famous. I've never heard of him at all before I read Yglesias. Sure, he probably made a nice living, but it's not like Yglesias is Bill Gates' son or Jamie Dimon's son. But to read people like you, Yglesias must have grew up in a golden castle or something.

Anonymous said...

This is your problem, you can't even agree with Yglesias without sneaking in some below-the-belt comments about how he's a privileged asshole who grew up swaddled in gold. Seriously, what is your problem? Practically no blogger wants to engage with you anymore, and no, it's not because your views are so threatening to the "establishment", it's because you always, always go for the nasty personal attack. Calling poeple thin-skinned. Have you look in the mirror lately? You're the definition of having no skin at all. God forbid anyone disagrees with you at all. Jesus, man, grow up, how old are you anyway? This is like watching a child throwing a temper tantrum. You were an embarassment to the left when you were the token leftish at League of Ordinary Gentlemen, you're still an embarassment now that maybe 100 people is reading your blog.

Freddie said...

To anonymous:

http://i284.photobucket.com/albums/ll36/Bigsteve87/Gifs/iX5iO.gif

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