« Ontario and Its Neighbours | Main | Consuming wealth without spending a dime »


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Nice, Frances. Is this an argument for better articulated, and measured, learning outcomes in university programs? [At times I dislike how I think!]


Thanks for commenting.

It is an argument for better information. Does listing learning outcomes actually provide better information? Here's the ANU B Econ info page http://programsandcourses.anu.edu.au/2015/program/BECON.

Here are the learning outcomes for the B Econ:

Learning Outcomes
Students who successfully complete this degree are trained:

to solve economic problems using analytical reasoning;
apply economic analysis to a wide variety of economic issues;
use basic empirical estimation techniques to test economic predictions;
provide insight into the way that households and individuals make decisions and interact, and the role of government in providing public goods and regulating the market sector;
learn how to communicate rigorous economic analysis in a coherent way

Now you and I know that the kind of economic problems students learn how to solve in econ are problems along the lines of: " Mr. B has $20.00 to spend on fruit. Apples cost $0.25 apiece. Oranges cost $0.50
a. Write down a formula for the maximum number of apples Mr. B
can buy as a function of the number of oranges he purchases."

But students probably think that the kinds of economic problems that they're likely to learn how to solve are, oh, say, unemployment or income inequality.

Are potentially misleading learning outcomes better or worse than no learning outcomes at all?

Frances, as you know better than I, in every pool of first year students there is a smallish group who are highly focused and directed (engineering, nursing, pre-med, architecture, etc.), some middling, and a lot who are confused about their very presence on campus. The BA--like the US military--is very effective at absorbing those who are lost and giving them some structure; indeed it may even give them a sense of mission. How many BA students have you heard claim they possess superior reasoning abilities because of their literature and philosophy majors?

Given that universities perhaps benefit by drawing in people who are confused and unfocused but have some minimal understanding of the singaling value of a degree, what will be the result of letting the BA explode into many different subsets? I wager few would sound as career relevant as economics. My own prediction would be that employers would, over time, simply discount all degrees not from professional schools or the hard sciences (BScs) as generic and marginally valuable.

In terms of bureaucracies, I could then see econ (and a few other) depts wanting to restrict the use of "economics" in any specialized undergrad degree name, to protect their relatively scarce value as undergrad educators.

Hi Frances, my experience is quite dated, but it may still be of some interest. I studied a B.Com at the University of Melbourne in the early 1990s. I majored in economics and then did an additional fourth-year 'honours' year in economics. I also studied a Bachelor of Laws concurrently, except during my honours year, which was devoted to economics. The economics honours year involved doing six semester-length units, plus a 10,000 word 'research essay'. For the research essay, most people adapted a published paper to Australian data/conditions, typically using some econometrics learned through coursework; it was meant to provide a gentle introduction to how economic research is (or was) done. Uni Melb is, along with ANU, one of the 'Group of Eight' universities in Australia. The Go8 generally includes Australia's older and more prestigious institutions, so there is usually plenty of demand for their courses. The B.Com at Melbourne got quite good/smart applicants and by honours year, we often had some people who would go on to PhDs at some of the top North American schools. Conversely, most of the academics were pretty dismissive of the economics taught in the post-graduate MBA course, likening it to what we might have done in first or second year.

The B.Com was a degree that was well-known to and highly valued by applicants, their parents and employers and the type of applicants it received was substantially different to the applicants who chose to do a BA. You could study economics through a BA - although few did - but you couldn't study accounting or finance. I think it was very useful to separate the degrees, because the B.Com provided a good grounding in economics and finance for those that wanted it. And for those who chose to go into management, it obviated - at least from an academic content perspective - the need to do a much more expensive (and far less rigorous) MBA.

Oh, I should add that I (and many employers who value strong analytical skills) are far more sceptical of many of the newer degrees that Australian universities have created - some of which you've named. Many of these degrees focus on teaching highly specialised content rather than developing an intellectual framework. Or maybe that's just me being an old-timer/reactionary/insider. The new-fangled degrees do seem very popular with the kids though.


You say “...and letting the market decide”, but for that to really happen, we need to stop publicly funding post secondary education.

If we accept signalling as an important component to education, more education is not socially beneficial. Signalling implies a huge negative externality for education. The hoop jumping creates a signalling arms race and in effect a huge rent seeking waste. Pouring public money into this scheme only makes the situation worse. The unbundling issues that you talk about seem to me more about increased signalling differentiation in a rent seeking market.

It's pretty easy to see that signalling must make up a very large component of post secondary education. If students attended university for human capital generation reasons, we would find that students would:

1) be upset if class got cancelled.
2) feel unhappy if they forgot the details of previous courses.
3) not cram for exams, but would keep up all through the term.
4) read all the relevant course material without concern if it was going to be on the final.

I wonder how the typical student behaves on these four points?

Someone (ladderff) at marginal revolution posted the comment below illustrating education-as-pure-signalling. It's gold!

“An old pal took a class at Harvard called ‘Dinosaurs.’ Things to note: (1) He knows jack about dinosaurs even after taking a Harvard class about dinosaurs; (2) even if he did, a knowledge of dinosaurs is not very useful; (3) He got an “A” because it’s Harvard and that’s all anyone gets; (4) After graduation McKinsey hired him for god-knows-how-much money, because he’s smart and he knows how to carry water. But he was a smart water-carrier the day Harvard admitted him.”

Shangwen: "My own prediction would be that employers would, over time, simply discount all degrees not from professional schools or the hard sciences (BScs) as generic and marginally valuable."

ANU has tried to create an elite, limited admission, arts degree - the Bachelor of Philosophy. These degrees will continue to be attractive for people who want to enter the professions e.g. law, or are planning on taking a professional masters degree. Also for people who want a good undergraduate education, and for whatever reason don't have to worry about what some bureaucrat in HR thinks - because they plan on entering a family business, for example.

Which raises another point: is it what employers want, or is it what "human resource professionals" want? Two different things.

Interestingly, even though students are going, in increasing numbers, to these perceived "hard" degrees, they still take lots of arts courses - e.g. math majors take courses like the history of popular music in America. So even if philosophy might not have majors, it'll still have bums on seats.

BTW, love the idea that universities are basically boot camp for people who like to sleep in in the mornings....

Rajat - thanks for commenting. I wonder if you might be able to expand on this point here: "Many of these degrees focus on teaching highly specialised content rather than developing an intellectual framework."

It sounded to me as if, when you were an undergrad, you could either take Econ through a B Comm or Econ through a BA, and you figure the B Comm Econ had better students. But presumably both groups took the same economics courses (more or less) with the same faculty members? In this case, how do the new degrees end up with more specialized content? Is it that they impose much more structure on the courses that students must take? Students no longer take disciplinary courses that give them an intellectual paradigm/perspective with which to analyze things? I.e. interdisciplinarity privileges content over method? Or is it that these new specialized degrees have led to the development of small institutes/departments/other units with a small number of highly specialized faculty members?

Do you see what I'm getting at? Have the dishes on offer at the university's all-you-can-study buffet changed? Or have they merely been re-arranged and re-packaged?

Avon- Your numbers 1-4 largely describe my son and his classmates that we have met. (Physics and math majors for the most part.) As far as I can tell, a lot of the kids really don't do much other than study and work on projects. Things seem much more competitive than when I went many years ago. While I understand that this group may not represent "typical " students, I have also noted that the amount of graded homework has increased dramatically from when I attended school. I think time management may be a little more difficult today. That said,certainly on #2 it seems most schools still have some sort of non-major core requirements and most kids just take them to complete the requirement, not caring that much about what they learn.


Hi Frances, you're right that the economics I took through the B.Com is the same subject as when taken through the BA. I didn't take it through the B.Com for better students, as all students were assessed together, but for the range of other subjects I could take (like finance). But for many newer degrees, much of the content derives from entirely new subjects. (Maybe the old-school BA academics thought the same thing about accounting and finance in the 1950s or whenever the B.Com was created!) The issue at Uni Melbourne now is slightly different because most of the course proliferation is happening at the (government unsubsidised) post-graduate level [NB Melbourne has gone down this path in part to enable it to charge what it likes to domestic as well as international students.] Melbourne now offers degrees like Master of International Business, which has subjects like "Cooperation and Conflict in World Trade", which is not found in the M.Com or the MBA - http://mbs.unimelb.edu.au/study/degrees/master-of-international-business/degree-structure#nav I'm not even sure you could take an advanced micro or macro principles course in such a degree if you wanted to. So it is more than just a tighter structure; it's about offering the market what it is looking for - which is fruit salad - but often at the expense of analytical rigour. Perhaps this is not a bad thing; it's certainly helping to fund universities' research activities!

Rajat - interesting.

It's definitely true that students aren't always good judges of which courses will have long-term pay-offs. Unfortunately it's also easy for academics to observe that some courses with high long-term pay-offs are unpleasant at the time, and then (incorrectly) generalize to thinking that all courses which are unpleasant at the time have high long-term pay-offs. Nope. Some stuff is unpleasant *and* useless.

But fruit salad is profitable. This is good to know. Now I have to figure out how to make tasty and delicious fruit salad!

"Some stuff is unpleasant *and* useless."

Not if education is mostly signalling. Demonstrating that you can sit through useless tedious lectures, complete the course work with a high proficiency, and then promptly forget everything is exactly what a great many employers (especially the in civil service) are looking for.

Bear in mind that I'm and educated person, with a PhD in physics. For me an education was a form of entertainment; I loved and it was worth all the opportunity costs I paid. But for most people an education is signalling and that's about it. In most cases, if you really want to learn something, pick up a book and work through it. You'll get through the material faster and in more depth than in a formal course.

Frances - "Everywhere admission into Bachelor of Commerce and Bachelor of Business Administration programs is restricted".

Well - yes - and no. Every BCom with which I am familiar has either algebra or calculus PREREQUISITE or BOTH - and with a separate minimum average required for the algebra or calculus - apart from the general high school average required for admission. And I am guessing this is common for all STEM programs.

The reason that most (all?) students cannot get into into business or engineering is because they lack the math prerequisites.

Do we impose those prereqs merely as a filter to reduce our enrollment numbers? I don't think so. Talk to any BCom student after taking the core - dreaded - Intro to Corporate Finance in 2nd year.

Or better still, you or any AD or Dean could presumably run the high school math grades against success in the BCom program.

I hypothesize the stronger the quant skills the higher the success rate in the BCom.

If this is so, perhaps the real problem is the significant decline in numeracy of students from the high schools.

Second issue - you questioned why accounting is not unbundled from the BCom. That would have been a good question 20 years ago when accounting was much more narrow and less sophisticated. However, today the study of accounting has become very dependent on a strong understanding of microeconomics, stats, math, IT, forecasting to name but a few - in short - the entire suite of courses associated with business schools.

Third, issue of signalling. At the risk of being labelled a utilitarian, the courses and knowledge b-schools offer are simply very useful to employers. Restated, the students flock to the BCom as they know they will earn a degree populated with very useful courses that are demanded by major employers. This is why large numbers of our students are recruited at very good starting salaries by accounting firms, banks, pension funds and head offices of large firms such as Canadian Tire, Loblaws, Walmart et al. They can undertake discounted cash flows, analyze a 10K, prepare a budget forecast etc.etc.

Perhaps, business schools are so successful because we offer demanding relevant courses that are valued by students and employers. But those b-schools that water down their prerequisites or content will experience a similar fate to other disciplines that have fared less well in the past 25 years.

Maybe those disciplines in the humanities and social sciences should consider raising their standards?

An even more radical thought - as suggested by Canada Research Chair and former Dean Ken Coates - maybe there are too many people being admitted to universities who are simply not qualified:


It is possible that b-schools admit the "right number" while the other disciplines discussed are simply admitting too many - unqualified - students.

Frances - not sure how the list server identified me as "uired" (I don't teach IS) in the previous post. But I never post anonymously - Ian Lee, Sprott School, Carleton.


In the next decade those bcom "skills" - forecasting, stock/market analysis, etc. will disappear completely. Today, the successful firms apply serious data analysis and statistical learning. It will get to the point that you either know how to implement serious ideas in languages like R or you're useless to the business as an analyst. Forecasting using excel spreadsheets will very soon be a thing of the past. The bank branch manager no longer decides on loans and even the role of the pro sport scout has diminished. And of course active management for pension funds, turning the fund into an equity long hedge fund (with government bailout insurance), is a scam, simply a signal of due diligence. The only thing left in 10 years will be sales (and this is a serious role, but the skills can't be taught in school) and compliance work (accounting, etc). From an analyst perspective, the future will be, either you know how to seriously get a computer to do something or a computer will replace you. The value of an MBA/bcom lies in signalling the ability to do tedious work, successfully and to completion, which is want employers want.

BTW, the most important thing for an accountant to understand is the tax code, not microeconomics. The better the firm understands compliance, on the margin, that generates far more revenue from tax arbitrage than from knowing the envelope theorem.

"Talk to any BCom student after taking the core - dreaded - Intro to Corporate Finance in 2nd year."

This is what I find so funny about Bcoms. The math in second year Intro Finance is pedestrian. Compare it to second year quantum mechanics or thermodynamics in the physics. Of course, the highest levels of finance are as mathematically sophisticated as anything in physics - see anything by Lars Hansen - but the BCom simply doesn't compare or ramp you up for that kind of research. It's a pure signalling degree.

Here is an example. No BCom in a job will be asked to work out the details of the mutual fund separation theorem (actually, really understanding it disqualifies you from working as a stock analyst). So why do BCom students see the mutual fund separation theorem in their finance courses? Because it's tedious to work through, requires a bit of mathematical background, which requires a bit of work to understand, and then the theorem can quickly be forgotten. Future BCom employers could care less if you knew the mutual fund separation theorem or how it works. What they care about is that you can do tedious things and finish them. Pure signalling.

Respectfully, Avon, you are making the wrong comparison.

Frances did not ask why physicists or math types (lets aggregate them with the acronym STEM) are doing so well. Frances posed the question - although somewhat coded I think - why are BCom/BBA types doing so well relative to humanities and social science grads.

My answer then and now - if I may invoke an eccentric thinker (it might have been Ricardo or Rowe - I mix them up) - is that BComs have a COMPARATIVE advantage over the social scientists and humanities grads - not the ABSOLUTE advantage you posit for physicists.

A BCom will not state (at least they should not state), what is a 10K? Or suggest that financial statements are "social constructs" and thus are meaningless (tell that to your banker when you are applying for a major increase in your line of credit).

Or suggest that the Stats Canada income stats by quintile are just the ""opinion" of Stats Canada, as a humanities grad recently told me.

But yes, success in a BCom signals the grad can crunch numbers, analyze financial statements, budgets etc. - which they have to do at many of these jobs.

Restated, the signal is that the BCom grad can successfully do at work - what we trained them to do in the BCom

Hello Ian,

You are correct about comparative advantages. The BCom graduate has a comparative advantage relative to most other disciplines - and especially STEM majors - at successfully completing tedious work for business. The BCom has an absolute advantage over most of the humanity graduates this area. Most BComs will be absorbed into compliance related jobs (tax, reporting etc.) and the employer needs to know that the employee will ensure due diligence. The BCom is an excellent tool at sorting for those who are good at it. The question is: Are there better - that is, more efficient, lower transaction cost - ways at sorting for this comparative advantage? Honestly, I don't know, but public funding removes the potential to find out the best mechanism. It might be the case that the best way to “train” people to pour over 10-K SEC filings is on the job. The employer is looking for a smart, conscientious water carrier and there might be far more efficient ways to sort for them than a four year BCom with tens of thousands of dollars billed to the taxpayer. Designer degree programs reflect the signalling arms race of publicly funded education.

University education was from the beginning intended to give students a common set of advanced knowledge viewed necessary by society for the person to enjoy a rich intellectual life and to socialize well with their (educated) peers. In the beginning it was a luxury for the upper classes most of whom never had any intention of working. As society became wealthier, we are able to provide a university education not just for the elite but for most of the population that wants it. At the same time, we discovered that when a person is able to spend a few years learning a wide array of topics in focused study, that they become more valuable as employees as well. This is a good thing, but it does not turn a university in a vocational school.

If no one was able to get a job in their chosen field of study (and most don't), then this doesn't diminish the role of universities at all. Universities, like public libraries and public parks, are those great enlightenment institutions meant to increase human achievement and happiness, not to make XYZ company more profitable. Sure, you can try to view public libraries as institutions that increase human knowledge and labor productivity, but that's tenuous and misses the point. You certainly wouldn't want to re-organize libraries to make them more efficient at providing occupational skills to workers by cutting out detective stories or history books. So don't do this for the university either.

What you want to do is to make vocational schools better, not to try to turn a university into a vocational school.

In Australia we have quite centralised and mechanical admissions processes based on high school results. You don't have to make individual applications to different universities. But you do have to pick your degree as well.

Which means there are books which list all the degrees offered by all the universities in each state (e.g. http://www.uac.edu.au/publications/). And as an 18 year old reading it I was more impressed with a "Bachelor of XYZ" than a "Bachelor of Arts/Science" with a major in XYZ in the fine print.

I think that is the main reason behind the proliferation of named degrees. The impact on course content appears pretty minimal - it is just a marketing device to get the kids in the door.


You are advocating the human capital generation model of a university education. I doubt it holds. University sorts people, it doesn't make them better, intellectually curious people.

The human capital generation model supposes that students come in as raw coal and a university education turns them into diamonds. Hence higher earnings of university graduates results from improved human capital.

The signalling model supposes that students come in/apply as diamonds or gravel and the university sorts them much like a jewller's loupe. You are either a diamond or not the day you entered university and your time at university won't change that. So, yes a university education is associated with higher earnings, and the higher earnings are deserved. But the universty's role was to sort and thus signal, not produce human capital.

Both the human capital model and the signalling model are observationally equivalent when it comes to earnings and workforce performance. One of the ways to tell them apart is to ask former students if they remember something from one of the classes they took. If the answer is no, ask if it bothers them that their university generated human capital degraded since they left school. If the answer is again no, then you have your answer: a university education was more about signalling than human capital production.

My guess, both effects are present, but the signalling contribution is the majority. This means that the quest for more university education and degrees/credentials is mostly wasteful rent seeking, generating a negative externality.


"You are advocating the human capital generation model of a university education."

Actually, I am advocating the exact opposite.

I am arguing against viewing a university education as some sort of investment whose goal is to produce more widgets farther down the line.

Vocational schools serve this purpose.

Having the ability to dedicate a few years of your life to learning is a goal in and of itself, just as having a public library which allows you to freely read books is a goal, or having a park or zoo or concert hall is an end to itself. We do not live to produce widgets. Widget production is merely an intermediate input into this thing called life.

A wealthy society is able to pay for things like liberal arts education for those of its citizenry who want it. Of course it will appear wasteful to those who don't value this or who view education solely in terms of its signaling effect on future widget production. I am sure that concert halls are similarly in your value system. That's fine, those people can stick to vocational training, which is a type of human capital investment.

"Of course it will appear wasteful to those who don't value this or who view education solely in terms of its signaling effect on future widget production."

The vast, vast majority of students who attend university go to increase their earning potential. Make every entering student a billionaire, and the drop out rate would be nearly 100%. So, if students are going to university to increase earning potential, what is the mechanism? Is it human capital production or the signalling of pre-existing characteristics? That's an important question for policy.

"A wealthy society is able to pay for things like liberal arts education for those of its citizenry who want it."

No. A liberal arts education should be available to those who pay for it. If as you say it's more about consumption "and living life" then there is no reason for taxpayers to fund it. If we're going to fund "life experiences", why not fund my backpacking expedition across Latin America?

"No. A liberal arts education should be available to those who pay for it."

Then it's not a benefit provided by society, is it? Are you against public parks as well? If this is some general libertarian claptrap, then it's a separate discussion from universities, as there are many other public services you can attack for being available to the poor.

The whole concept of enlightenment institutions is that they are subsidized so that the fruits of national wealth are not limited to the upper classes. The enlightenment did not create libraries or concert halls or universities -- instead, it propagated the concept of "public" versions of these institutions.

"If we're going to fund "life experiences", why not fund my backpacking expedition across Latin America?"

We've been through this already. Because the free market is not able to efficiently provide long term services such as this. A vacation or an ice cream cone can be delivered relatively efficiently by the free market, but an education cannot.


A better way to think about this is that while a trip to Latin America might be a great experience, as a society we haven't decided that trips to Latin America are something that should be made available to you even if you are poor in the same way that we have decided an education should be made available to you. Now the *reason* we have decided this is not because an education helps you make more widgets, but because an education makes you a better person directly. Being able to consume more widgets might give you more pleasure and make your life more enjoyable, just as being more knowledgeable about history and our place in it might make your life more pleasant. But the values that we see in education are not just the values that arise from pleasure, just as they are not solely the benefits that arise form more educated people being able to produce more widgets. Education is a goal in and of itself. If you try to reproduce the value we place on education solely into it's ability to produce more widgets, you will miss an important part of what it means to be a human. The same is true if you try to distill the value of an education simply in terms of the fun that college students have while being in college (many do not have a lot of fun, yet still greatly value the knowledge they gained).

But if you are simply unable to value the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake -- then you've missed something that the rest of civilization has gained in the enlightenment. Education will seem a very inefficient way to gain either direct pleasure or more widget production. That's just too bad, I guess.

If, on the other hand, you do value education then you need to defend the view that it should not be available to the poor -- that it should be rationed based on wealth rather than based on how much it would benefit the student. And here is the problem that the would be student doesn't really know how much the additional knowledge will benefit him until he obtains it. The main benefit of the university experience is that it opens your mind to new possibilities, and you can't accurately value that ex-ante. What you can value is that many of those who attend University cherish the experience and so are willing to pay taxes to let the next generation have the same opportunities. How may extra widgets are produced is irrelevant.

Declan - thanks so much for this. That's very helpful. We have much the same kind of application process in Ontario (it's called OUAC). One of the big perceived advantages of unbundling the BA is that an, e.g., B Econ would have higher profile on OUAC than a BA in Economics.

Ian, thanks for commentating. I'm surprised to find you so paternalistic - I would have expected you to take a more libertarian attitude. Sure, some students will find accounting etc tough. Let students try and fail. Or respond to the demands of the market. There's been a technological revolution that has stripped accounting of much of its tediousness. That can (and probably is) radically changing the way accounting can be taught.

Moreover, some of those students who struggle with high school math will one day end up preparing budgets or managing budgets or having retirement funds to invest. They need to understand the basics of accounting principles - at least give them a chance.

rsj: "Universities, like public libraries and public parks, are those great enlightenment institutions meant to increase human achievement and happiness" But do they? Do you remember the post I did years ago about Spongebob and Squidward? Spongebob is happy flipping burgers, Squidward is not because he thinks he should be a musician?

Getting back to the topic of Frances' original post, I don't really see the logic behind the unbundling suggestion. Is there any empirical evidence that a B.A. (Econ.) is failing to have a signalling effect to employers? I think it's a real stretch to suggest that creating a B.Econ. would be substantially more successful at signalling. But if it did have that effect, assuming total enrolment did not change, it would only serve to further ghettoize students in the remaining B.A. programs. I see no net benefit overall to students or the university.

The way to raise all boats is to do the hard work: improve course content, reduce fluff courses, make grading standards more rigorous, improve links to industry, so that there is a broad perception that the grads are more capable. Waterloo is a good example of this. Steadily improving execution has allowed them to boost admission standards across the board over the last 30 years, and to almost absurd levels in some programs. (They have quite a few programs where a 95% high school average only gives students a 40% chance of admission.) Yes, they do have some notable "unbundled" programs, but the've worked hard to improve the student body, rather than trying to stratify and ghettoize a student body with low admission standards.

Chris: "Is there any empirical evidence that a B.A. (Econ.) is failing to have a signalling effect to employers?"

Unfortunately, I don't know the answer to that. I wish I did.

In economics, what does "improve course content" mean? I find that a number of of my colleagues believe "improve course content'=more math. So, e.g., in stats/econometrics "improve course content"=matrix algebra.

Even if we do manage to improve course content, how can we convince potential students that we're doing anything different?

"But if it did have that effect, assuming total enrolment did not change, it would only serve to further ghettoize students in the remaining B.A. programs. I see no net benefit overall to students or the university."

If we think of the various flavours as BA as just being different, rather than better or worse, then perhaps there is value in unbundling per se. E.g. Campbells Soup used to have Campbells Soup in large letters on the can. These days soup labels have pictures of the soup inside, making it a little bit easier to figure out what the soup actually contains. Unbundling the BA could be thought of in these terms - as giving everyone a clearer picture of what's inside the can.

Regarding employers and HR departments, when it comes to positions that require a BA, there are employers who then ask "In what?" and a much larger number who don't. Governments rarely ask, the only exception being economics. Other than that, the general assumption is that a BA represents a tolerable competence in readin' and writin', and the ability to tell time--an incredibly low bar when you think about it. If nothing else it primarily reflects the graduate's willingness to accept the importance of status indicators (equally depressing), thus implying a certain submissiveness to organizational process.

So I would agree that most students go to University to increase their earnings potential, and the non-econ BA is a great gig for those who have little idea how to do it. Given the types of institutions we have, and the difficulty in organizing other substitute indicators for ability, it isn't the worst arrangement.


"They have quite a few programs where a 95% high school average only gives students a 40% chance of admission".

This high school admission standard is set because Ontario doesn't have standardized exams in the last year of high school, like the SAT in the US. Ontario high schools have an incredible incentive to grade compress (inflate is a bad description, it's compression to the top end) and it is at extreme levels now. If you graduate with B+ or an A- from an Ontario high school my guess is that you're functionally illiterate. Seriously, I teach a first year course at an Ontario university for the general student body, and they really are illiterate. It has gotten worse over the last decade. So, in and attempt to see the signal through a very foggy lens, Waterloo has to increase the standard. Eventually, the universities will run out of room when Ontario high schools refuse to differentiate students at all on any meaningful dimension.

At the high school level, public education can't even get the rent seeking of signalling right! It's a double waste.

@AvonBarksdale: Clearly there is grade inflation, but I think you're overstating the situation considerably. Waterloo's undergraduate admission requirements are substantially higher for programs like engineering than even the U of T, because they've developed a perception of graduate competence and a strong pipeline into industry. The people who are going there are not a "general student body". They also have the unique benefit of being able to use the Descartes exam as an admission criterion (which is substantially more rigorous than the SAT, though to be fair it also tests a much more limited set of skills). It is possible for other universities to build this kind of student body competency, but it takes time... band-aid solutions like renaming programs are unlikely to be successful in my view.

I do wonder how much has changed though over the years. I TAed some English undergraduate courses 20 years ago, and even then it was eye-opening to see that a nontrivial portion of English majors had difficulty structuring an essay. I imagine it's worse now, like you say.

"providing success in school and success in the workplace is correlated".

Seems that Google is convinced that it is not. See here

The comments to this entry are closed.

Search this site

  • Google

Blog powered by Typepad