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COVID and implications for education (human capital vs. signaling)

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Economists talk about the “human capital” and “signaling-screening” aspects of education. The impact of the COVID-19 virus on schools and students allows us to consider these two ways in which schooling is useful for individuals and society.

Human capital is the role of education in building general and specific skills. In elementary and secondary schools, it is foundational — basic knowledge and basic skills in literacy, fluency, numeracy and socialization. In college, human capital accumulation ranges from improved oral communication, critical thinking and time management — to the ability to execute laboratory work, create artwork and interpret balance sheets. 

More human capital is good for those acquiring the education — and for society at large. A more educated population is more likely to be productive, to invent and innovate. Those with more education tend to stay out of trouble and have less turmoil with family stability and structure. The educated are better able to withstand the dynamics of labor markets. And so on. 

Signaling-screening is the extent to which education allows employees to more effectively “signal” and firms to “screen” applicants. For example, people who graduate are generally sharper than those who do not. High schoolers who take more Honors and AP courses typically work harder than those who do not. Students with a 3.5 GPA are usually more disciplined than those who have a 2.5 GPA. 

As such, schooling can be valuable, even if it is not relevant to a job. It’s still useful to distinguish between those who jump through a hoop and those who do not. Getting over a hurdle of educational attainment often indicates greater future productivity. If so, it’s important to individuals — and to society — to promote effective matches between firms and employees. At the extreme, even if school taught nothing useful in terms of human capital, it would still serve vital purposes as signaling-screening.

In college, the extent of human capital and signaling-screening varies by type of school, by major, by course, by teacher effectiveness, etc. Some majors are quite focused on specific human capital aspects. If you’re an accounting major, you’d better learn how to do accountancy. An economics major acquires more general skills — and the degree has more signaling-screening, since its material is relatively challenging. Whatever degree you get, it has value — in signaling that you’re probably sharper than those who didn’t graduate. 

COVID gives us an opportunity to think about these distinctions. What happens when colleges cancel half of a semester? What happens when schools switch to e-learning or on-line (especially when it’s cobbled together in a hurry)? “Education” is reduced, but how much are human capital and signaling-screening reduced? 

Full-time college students need eight semesters to graduate. So, half of a semester is about one-sixteenth of their education. Would we expect their skills to be 6 percent lower as a result? Of course, e-learning and other adjustments will reduce the loss, but how much human capital will they forfeit? (And does it matter whether one is a chemistry or history major?) Or think about elementary and secondary schools. If students lose one quarter, do they lose one-fourth of a year in terms of human capital? (It’ll be fascinating to see if economists can measure this effectively in the future.) 

From a signaling-screening perspective, there’s some reason for concern, but probably not much. Missing part of a semester is not likely to dramatically change the probability that people graduate. And so, the value of education as a signal and screen should be largely unchanged. 

I’ll close with a related anecdote. I wonder about the extent to which college education helps with the human capital aspect of “good citizenship.” A few weeks ago, I participated in a panel discussion at my university on religion and “tolerance.” In the Q&A part of the event, a student talked about an aspect of her college education. From what she said, it seemed likely that her “education” on that topic had been one-sided — even though she imagined that she had been “educated” in the true sense of the term. 

This seems to be a common outcome these days. People imagine they’re far more knowledgeable than they are — that they have more human capital than they really do. Worse yet, they often combine their “knowledge” with intolerance and self-righteousness — a perverse form of ignorance. In these contexts, less time in the classroom may actually be helpful. Then again, I’d bet the problem extends well beyond the classroom. 


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