June 24, 2012
STEVE POSTREL: Marginalism and the Higher Ed Paradox.
My hypothesis is that it is precisely the dumbing down of U.S. education over the last decades that explains the increase in willingness to pay for education. The mechanism is diminishing marginal returns to education.
Typical graduate business school education has indeed become less rigorous over time, as has typical college education. But typical high school education has declined in quality just as much. As a result, the human capital difference between a college and high-school graduate has increased, because the first increments of education are more valuable on the job market than the later ones. It used to be that everybody could read and understand something like Orwell’s Animal Farm, but the typical college graduates could also understand Milton or Spencer. Now, nobody grasps Milton but only the college grads can process Animal Farm, and for employers the See Spot Run–>Animal Farm jump is more valuable than the Animal Farm–>Milton jump.
So the value of a college education has increased even as its rigor has declined, because willingness to pay for quality is really willingness to pay for incremental quality.
This is appallingly plausible. I’m not certain, but I think this trend would also be a boon to third-party certification, as a cheaper and more rigorous alternative.