Rich Vedder spoke at the John Locke Foundation’s Monday Shaftesbury Society luncheon meeting and while he was here, I gave him a copy of the recent blog argument between Gary Becker and Richard Posner on the returns to college education. Naturally, he has weighed in on that dispute and you can read his post on it here.
At the end of his post, Vedder contends that college education is a costly screening mechanism and suggests that top employers ought to consider hiring young people who have been accepted into good colleges and universities. He suspects that they would do every bit as well as those who spent years (and loads of money) going through college. If so, that would call into question the idea that the college experience is the cause of the high earnings of those with degrees.
A few years ago I posed this thought experiment to an old friend of mine, a lawyer who graduated from Harvard and Harvard Law:
Suppose we have two groups of 10 high school graduates. All of them have been accepted by elite schools — let’s say Harvard. The first group enrolls in Harvard, graduates, then the students go on to elite law schools. After graduation, they’re hired by prestigious firms and begin their careers.
The second group of students, all of whom desire to go into the legal profession, are simply hired by a prestige law firm and begin learning the business of being an attorney as apprentices. Eventually, they all pass the bar and become lawyers in the firm.
The question I asked my friend was this: After each group had been practicing law for 10 years, would there be any detectable difference in their abilities? He promptly replied that there probably wouldn’t be any difference, but if anything, the second group might be marginally better because they’d have learned how to write well at an earlier age.
Formal education isn’t the only way for people to learn the things they need to know and isn’t necessarily the best way.