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Less a matter of cost of ingredients than preparation labor and flavorful taste I would say.

I would think it is mostly requirements, prerequisites, and scheduling for the few actual choices. Lower division often offer only one of four choices for a given requirement and no real choice once in a program until upper or even senior year.

Speaking as someone who is now, in retirement, working as a contract instructor (part-time), I wish I were being paid $10,000 per course...Maybe I should move to Canada?

Donald, "I wish I were being paid $10,000 per course"

So do a lot of contract instructors here. The rates for Contract Instructors at Carleton can be found here http://carleton.ca/hr/wp-content/uploads/CUPE_4600_u2.pdf - it's more than $10,000 for a full (two-term) course, less than $10,000 for a half (one term) course. One term = approx 36 to 39 hours of instructional time, plus office hours, prep, marking etc.

Lord: "preparation labor and flavorful taste I would say."

The post refers to "cost ... to prepare" which includes both time and money costs.

"no real choice once in a program until upper or even senior year."

This is another strange but universally accepted feature of education at Canadian universities - why have small seminar classes that teach writing and communication skills in fourth year, rather than scheduling the small seminars for first year, when students are presumably much more in need of guidance and instruction, and less capable of teaching themselves? (Other than the fact that a lot of students never make it to fourth year, so it costs much less to put the avocado salad there).

The ideas in this post rely on the assumption that post-secondary education is about human capital formation. In addition to my day job, I teach two courses per year at an Ontario university. Over the last decade of teaching I’ve come to the conclusion that the majority of an undergraduate education is signalling. University is not about turning coal into diamonds, it’s about sorting diamonds from gravel.

Unlike the restaurant analogy in which the different menu choices confer taste benefits, the purpose of an undergraduate degree is to show that you conform, can finish tedious tasks, and stick it all out to the end. Few employers care what you studied - few care if you can remember anything from your degree. They just care that you finished. How many people feel bad that they can’t remember the details of an undergrad course they took years ago? Of all the people who go through Carleton’s econ program, how many of them three years after graduation are intellectually concerned about the details of confidence interval estimation? Most got through the course to get the job that will never ask them to understand a sufficient statistic. Ultimately, most students don’t really care to become educated, they, and their parents, care about acquiring a signal.

Is the course theoretical or applied? Does it involve any real world data analysis? What kind of software or programming skills will be taught? If signalling is the majority reason for getting a degree, who cares?

Here's a nice summary of the situation written by ladderff some years ago:

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.

We don’t need exhaustive empirical research or multi-tiered nested models or whatever the OP was about to figure this out. Just go visit a college campus, be it Harvard or Orange County Community. Resist the smell of rotting leaves in autumn and the nostalgia it brings, and look around. The business of “acquiring human capital” sounds like hard work — but very few of the students are engaged in anything that could be described that way! “Pass the bong—we have some time to kill before we collect the incomes we deserve!”

"If signalling is the majority reason for getting a degree, who cares?"

A number of reasons. First, because some courses generate better signals than others. E.g. the research experience course listed above, which was designed by someone who believes in signalling, and creates something that can be put on a c.v. Or the fourth year course I'm teaching next term, where students write a research paper, which they can then talk about in future job interviews or list on their c.v. or describe in their linkedin profile.

For a signal to be effective, it must be costly to acquire - otherwise it signals nothing but bong -passing ability. If university degrees can be acquired merely by paying tuition and sitting around for four years, then universities are doing a pretty lousy job of sorting out more able and less able students - and that's a big problem.

Second, if degrees are all about signalling, the best course is the one that produces the best possible signal at the lowest possible cost. It's still worth shopping for avocado salad. Taking that course at 8:30 in the morning from that one prof who fails half his students really messes with your signalling ability. No one knows you took the course from the killer prof, they just know you lost your scholarship and didn't make the Dean's list.

“First, because some courses generate better signals than others.”

There might be a small effect here, but most employers won’t look at your transcript to see if you took difficult courses. They mostly don’t care what you studied, just that you finished something. As for the research course on your CV, maybe if you’re applying for grad school. But if you’re looking to land a job, say in banking, after an econ degree, summer internships and networking will separate you from the crowd much more. Most students don’t want to do research, they want a degree to get a job. And within one minute of getting a job, no one will care what you did at university ever again. Of course there are students who want an education – they are the most fun to teach – but they are a small minority.

“If university degrees can be acquired merely by paying tuition and sitting around for four years, then universities are doing a pretty lousy job of sorting out more able and less able students - and that's a big problem.”

But that’s my point! Look at how hard most university students actually work. How many of them put in 70+ hour weeks? How many of them are goofing off in the cafeteria between class? For most, university is a pretty relaxing time. OK, they’ve got to hand in the occasional essay and write (and pass) final exams, but the signal is that you can stick out four years of tedium and conform to expectations. That’s the sorting mechanism.

Avon: " For most, university is a pretty relaxing time."

I wish I could introduce you to some of my students.

Perhaps because I have a dirty mind, perhaps because I am very good at remembering trivia, and certainly because one of the (pretty mainline) student clubs screened it annually when I was in college (mid 70s), this is what came to mind when I started reading this post.

(In case the link I've attempted above doesn't take, here it is again. Safe for work - http://tinyurl.com/gt96kn4

I believe Saturday Morning Breakfast cereal had a take on how unpleasant a meal it would be to just grab the most expensive bits at a buffet.


I'm sure your students are hard working in the research course. I am sure they are a joy to teach and many will go on to grad school. But they are not typical of the student body.

Most of what goes on at university is signalling. The students will work much harder in their first job than what they did at university.

> BA students pay the same fee for being in a class of 15 students taught by a full professor paid $150,000 per year as they do for being in a class of 300 students taught by a contract instructor paid $10,000 per course.

I think you're stacking the deck here. That full professorship is not granted on the exclusive basis of teaching ability; tenure and promotion committees care a great deal about research and grant-like accoutrements.

From the university's point of view, they're not paying for a $150k avocado salad; they're paying for a $10k side salad that comes with $120k of steak (3 courses/year). You can see this because bigwig professors don't earn a premium when they 'slum it' and teach a large introductory class.

In fact, the small seminar courses might be a tacit way to increase the effective remuneration of the highly-paid prof without writing a cheque. That 15-person course is going to be either easier to teach or more enjoyable to teach than Econ 101, yet it satisfies a teaching requirement anyway.

> But one thing that surprised me during my time as an academic administrator was that the "avocado salad" options on the educational buffet were not always eaten.

I think the easier explanation is that the university itself doesn't consider these programs to be 'avocado salad'.

A university's reputation depends on its perceived quality, and being known for lots of good avocado salad is a good way of improving those perceptions. That would suggest that the university should market, not hide its higher-quality course offerings, but as you point out universities do the latter even to the point of low enrolment for avocado.

Instead, things make more sense with the steak-and-salad metaphor. What the university is really buying is a professor's grant-earning and research reputation, like hiring a celebrity chef who's known for their great steak. If they insist on putting avocado salad on the menu even though nobody in town likes avocados, it might be a small price to pay for the steak.

(To put it another way, what department head would say with a straight face, 'No, you've taught Econ 101 too much. I want you to teach a small seminar class on your preferred research topics next term instead.'?)

At Rotman (Univ of Toronto), this problem is handled a little differently. After the 1st year in the MBA, almost all of 2nd year courses are electives. As you would expect some courses are way oversubscribed and others barely have any takers. At the end of first year, you get an allocation of bid points that you use to bid for the courses of your choosing. Also there is a road show of sorts where you have the profs pitching their electives(what they intend to cover, usefulness etc).

Oh, and there is a secret spreadsheet that gets passed to all first years with unvarnished feedback from students who took those electives in the prior year.

I thought the point system was a fair approach --transparent and fair for both students and administrators.

Given that it is a business school and a like-minded student community, it was probably easier for such mechanisms (secret spreadsheet) to evolve.

Wonks: excellent! Thanks so much for that link.

Majromax: "In fact, the small seminar courses might be a tacit way to increase the effective remuneration of the highly-paid prof without writing a cheque."

This is a good, and important, point. Thing is: In Canada, there's a whole heck of a lot of faculty members are being paid far more than they could expect to earn in any kind of alternative employment. Yes, I can see avocado salad being part of a balanced meal that includes steak. But what about the large numbers of faculty members who aren't delivering steak, but still demand lots of avocado salad.

I've decided that the single worst thing any winner of the Royal Swedish Bank award ever did was convince people that all higher education is simply signaling (Michael Spence, I mean you). Frankly, it has some truth, but even at Harvard, and even solely in an academic sense, I'll bet that a fair amount of human capital is being acquired.

Satish - i love it! Thanks so much for this. U of T is (or was) also unusual among Canadian universities in that students get to see their profs' teaching evaluations - e.g. here http://assu.ca/anti-calendar/2011-2012/

When given choices, most students are going to be focused on how easy the course is going to be. A small class with marked essays means both intense homework requirements and that it will be noticed if you've fallen behind on the reading. You can look on this as laziness, but when you're juggling responsibilities - whether a full-time course load, or for people like me, a part time load with a career and a family to worry about - then adding optional difficulty requires a substantial reward.

You noted that students pay the same, but it turns out that the value received is mostly in the form of the paper at the end. If an easy course and a labour intensive course move you the same distance towards that piece of paper, then you're going to take the easier one. Higher skill levels don't have much in way of perceived reward (I would argue that there is value, but mostly realized later in a career, so basically invisible to students). "Something to put on your CV" isn't really rewarded at all when it's class work. If your CV needs fleshing out, there's more reward from volunteer experience than from which specific classes you've taken.

Thanks Neil! You made my case - and from a student no less.

In Japan corporate hiring, at least at the "better" universities, is started before if not completed by the end of the 3rd year. It's well along before students have had much time to generate a university course track record, and then with job in hand the incentive to do much studying is low. But universities depend very much on tuition to pay current costs, hence the first two years are dominated by large lecture classes with up to 1,000 students. There are no teaching assistants and the last time I asked no "Scantrons" or other tools for automated grading. Faculty can't ask for much because they have no capacity to grade much. So signaling is core, and hinges very much on which college you are attending. Furthermore, multiple choice exams play a major role (and sometimes are the only criterion) for entry to college. There is thus a lot of competition to get into the high schools that have a good track record in getting students into elite colleges (ranks are widely published), and a large market for after-school test preparation courses.

Now my sense is that at lower-tier universities students can "exceed expectations" (on the job market) through performance, reflected in letters from their core professor. The bottom line remains that the signaling story is strong: how hard can you make yourself work on a consistent basis? There is a bit of screening on the basis of participation in sports teams and so on, looking for social skills, another attribute acquired at least in part in college, but since that's well known, the truly ambitious can game that aspect.

One mea culpa: my last extended stay at a Japanese university was in 2006-7, but I do read Japanese newspapers and books on a daily basis, so trust that I'd be aware of any major changes. One research challenge: how do people learn to be engineers? doctors? other technical skills? [There's lots on management-track individuals and bureaucratic careers, albeit with a bias towards studies of the financial sector. And I know enough musicians and artists to know that their training is quite different, very much hands-on.] Finally, to what extent does this apply to Korea? China?

This is a bit irrelevant, but perhaps worth mentioning, since this is not the kind of blog on which you'd normally expect to find a pharmacist posting:

Although the details are rather vague, UBC has followed other schools in introducing a "doctor of pharmacy" degree, in which students are expected to do two years of "preparatory studies" before enrolling in a four year programme, at the end of which they get to call themselves "doctor," and are out, as of this year, $110,000.$22,000/year for a degree which requires no preliminary degree; from a naive perspective, an "undergraduate" degree.)

The reason for this? Apparently, it is unpossible in a mere four years for a student to absorb their first/second year science curriculum, and also the overwhelming burden of preparation that's required to dispense drugs at your local drug store counter. What's that you say? Retail pharmacy versus the enormous demands of hospital pharmacy? Not to worry about the safeness of your healthiness. The school of Pharmacy will also take you on in an MSC and a PhD programme --that's Doctor Doctor, to you!

As far as I can tell, the main argument for this is that other schools (particularly in the States) are doing it. Got to stay competitive, because our degree will otherwise no longer signal whatever it is that they signal. (Doctor, doctor, tell me the news. . . ) It is an interesting and tragic fact, which no-one can help, that by remaining "competitive," the UBC school of pharmacy will be forced to extract six figures from that girl who's going to spend the rest of her life behind a counter at the back of the superstore explaining, one more time, why she can't just refill your oxy prescription.

Just sad, all that student loan debt, the lifelong burden, the foregone plans, the economy crippled by lack of aggegate demand. But, hey! Look at our new building!

While signalling is no doubt important, I think its influence on undergraduates is oversold. Unless students are a great deal more aware (and watching my sons enter into university gives me no reason to believe so), selection tends to be based on degree requirements, interest, and aspiration.

However, I'd agree that my experience was that there was next to no correlation between "cost of providing the course" and the "worth of the course to me on any given metric".

And lastly as with regards human capital formation - I believe that if you tested me a few years out of school, most my knowledge was either seemingly useless or forgotten. Yet being able to use the "useless" information to quickly learn relevant material, or being able remember what I've "forgotten" have both proven themselves invaluable over a 30 year career, especially every time my career has taken a right turn, and I've theoretically started from ground zero.

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