Evan Soltas
Apr 3, 2013

College and Culture

Here's a recent piece of mine in Bloomberg, arguing the case that college is more of a cultural rather than an economic phenomenon:

Why does anybody go to college? Economists usually suggest three reasons: investment, signaling and consumption.

A college education is a form of investment in human and social capital. Students gain knowledge and hone their intellectual talents. They learn outside the classroom, too -- developing “soft skills” and social savoir-faire. They form relationships and join networks.

College is also about signaling -- a way to tell employers, potential spouses and co-op boards that you are smart, diligent and productive. College doesn't necessarily make you any of these things, but in selecting from the pool of applicants, it provides an identifying stamp.

College is also a consumption good. Students are not learning or signaling so much as enjoying themselves.

None of these ideas captures the cultural role of college. Going to college is a kind of rite, and the value of higher education comes partly from the "thin air" of social expectations.