Friday, September 04, 2009

The College Placebo

From 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.

Colleges therefore are very concerned with prestige, status, and yes, pretense. That means thick syllabi, famous professors, and an impressive graduation ceremony.

Online instruction will never take over from traditional colleges and universities. Just as missionaries make personal visits to bring their message to life, so must professors and students spend face time together to animate the feeling that learning has taken place.

One reason we spend so much on college is to convince ourselves of our own commitment; similarly, in medicine, experiments show that aspirin relieves more of our pain, if we know that we spent more money on the pills.


Admiral said...

This seems like a serious misunderstanding of whom the placebo effect affects. Consider: the placebo effect is a question of information. In this case, what does a college education signal? Cowen's thesis is that it signals to the person that they are more qualified for jobs blah blah blah. Well, maybe. But mostly, it's a placebo effect to the employers who now believe that. ( Even though it may not be true. ) But we know it's an employer effect, no a college grad effect, because it's the employers who maintain the rigid BA, MA, PhD qualification requirements for jobs and toss out applications that do not conform.

On the other hand, it seems that there probably is some minor placebo effect on college graduates, but that has much less to do with the job market than the other point.

Justin M Ross said...

Yeah, it is a provocative idea, and it is hard for me to disentangle any supposed placebo effect from a separating equilibrium in a signaling game.