Sheepskin effect doesn’t prove much

Sep 20 JDN 2459113

The sheepskin effect is the observation that the increase in income from graduating from college after four years, relative going through college for three years, is much higher than the increase in income from simply going through college for three years instead of two.

It has been suggested that this provides strong evidence that education is primarily due to signaling, and doesn’t provide any actual value. In this post I’m going to show why this view is mistaken. The sheepskin effect in fact tells us very little about the true value of college. (Noah Smith actually made a pretty decent argument that it provides evidence against signaling!)

To see this, consider two very simple models.

In both models, we’ll assume that markets are competitive but productivity is not directly observable, so employers sort you based on your education level and then pay a wage equal to the average productivity of people at your education level, compensated for the cost of getting that education.

Model 1:

In this model, people all start with the same productivity, and are randomly assigned by their life circumstances to go to either 0, 1, 2, 3, or 4 years of college. College itself has no long-term cost.

The first year of college you learn a lot, the next couple of years you don’t learn much because you’re trying to find your way, and then in the last year of college you learn a lot of specialized skills that directly increase your productivity.

So this is your productivity after x years of college:

Years of collegeProductivity
010
117
222
325
431

We assumed that you’d get paid your productivity, so these are also your wages.

The increase in income each year goes from +7, to +5, to +3, then jumps up to +6. So if you compare the 4-year-minus-3-year gap (+6) with the 3-year-minus-2-year gap (+3), you get a sheepskin effect.

Model 2:

In this model, college is useless and provides no actual benefits. People vary in their intrinsic productivity, which is also directly correlated with the difficulty of making it through college.

In particular, there are five types of people:

TypeProductivityCost per year of college
0108
1116
2144
3193
4310

The wages for different levels of college education are as follows:

Years of collegeWage
010
117
222
325
431

Notice that these are exactly the same wages as in scenario 1. This is of course entirely intentional. In a moment I’ll show why this is a Nash equilibrium.

Consider the choice of how many years of college to attend. You know your type, so you know the cost of college to you. You want to maximize your net benefit, which is the wage you’ll get minus the total cost of going to college.

Let’s assume that if a given year of college isn’t worth it, you won’t try to continue past it and see if more would be.

For a type-0 person, they could get 10 by not going to college at all, or 17-(1)(8) = 9 by going for 1 year, so they stop.

For a type-1 person, they could get 10 by not going to college at all, or 17-(1)(6) = 11 by going for 1 year, or 22-(2)(6) = 10 by going for 2 years, so they stop.

Filling out all the possibilities yields this table:

Years \ Type01234
01010101010
1911131417
2
10141622
3

131925
4


1930

I’d actually like to point out that it was much harder to find numbers that allowed me to make the sheepskin effect work in the second model, where education was all signaling. In the model where education provides genuine benefit, all I need to do is posit that the last year of college is particularly valuable (perhaps because high-level specialized courses are more beneficial to productivity). I could pretty much vary that parameter however I wanted, and get whatever magnitude of sheepskin effect I chose.

For the signaling model, I had to carefully calibrate the parameters so that the costs and benefits lined up just right to make sure that each type chose exactly the amount of college I wanted them to choose while still getting the desired sheepskin effect. It took me about two hours of very frustrating fiddling just to get numbers that worked. And that’s with the assumption that someone who finds 2 years of college not worth it won’t consider trying for 4 years of college (which, given the numbers above, they actually might want to), as well as the assumption that when type-3 individuals are indifferent between staying and dropping out they drop out.

And yet the sheepskin effect is supposed to be evidence that the world works like the signaling model?

I’m sure a more sophisticated model could make the signaling explanation a little more robust. The biggest limitation of these models is that once you observe someone’s education level, you immediately know their true productivity, whether it came from college or not. Realistically we should be allowing for unobserved variation that can’t be sorted out by years of college.

Maybe it seems implausible that the last year of college is actually more beneficial to your productivity than the previous years. This is probably the intuition behind the idea that sheepskin effects are evidence of signaling rather than genuine learning.

So how about this model?

Model 3:

As in the second model, there are four types of people, types 0, 1, 2, 3, and 4. They all start with the same level of productivity, and they have the same cost of going to college; but they get different benefits from going to college.

The problem is, people don’t start out knowing what type they are. Nor can they observe their productivity directly. All they can do is observe their experience of going to college and then try to figure out what type they must be.

Type 0s don’t benefit from college at all, and they know they are type 0; so they don’t go to college.

Type 1s benefit a tiny amount from college (+1 productivity per year), but don’t realize they are type 1s until after one year of college.

Type 2s benefit a little from college (+2 productivity per year), but don’t realize they are type 2s until after two years of college.

Type 3s benefit a moderate amount from college (+3 productivity per year), but don’t realize they are type 3s until after three years of college.

Type 4s benefit a great deal from college (+5 productivity per year), but don’t realize they are type 4s until after three years of college.

What then will happen? Type 0s will not go to college. Type 1s will go one year and then drop out. Type 2s will go two years and then drop out. Type 3s will go three years and then drop out. And type 4s will actually graduate.

That results in the following before-and-after productivity:

TypeProductivity before collegeYears of collegeProductivity after college
010010
110111
210214
310319
410430

If each person is paid a wage equal to their productivity, there will be a huge sheepskin effect; wages only go up +1 for 1 year, +3 for 2 years, +5 for 3 years, but then they jump up to +11 for graduation. It appears that the benefit of that last year of college is more than the other three combined. But in fact it’s not; for any given individual, the benefits of college are the same each year. It’s just that college is more beneficial to the people who decided to stay longer.

And I could of course change that assumption too, making the early years more beneficial, or varying the distribution of types, or adding more uncertainty—and so on. But it’s really not hard at all to make a model where college is beneficial and you observe a large sheepskin effect.

In reality, I am confident that some of the observed benefit of college is due to sorting—not the same thing as signaling—rather than the direct benefits of education. The earnings advantage of going to a top-tier school may be as much about the selection of students as they are the actual quality of the education, since once you control for measures of student ability like GPA and test scores those benefits drop dramatically.

Moreover, I agree that it’s worth looking at this: Insofar as college is about sorting or signaling, it’s wasteful from a societal perspective, and we should be trying to find more efficient sorting mechanisms.

But I highly doubt that all the benefits of college are due to sorting or signaling; there definitely are a lot of important things that people learn in college, not just conventional academic knowledge like how to do calculus, but also broader skills like how to manage time, how to work in groups, and how to present ideas to others. Colleges also cultivate friendships and provide opportunities for networking and exposure to a diverse community. Judging by voting patterns, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that college also makes you a better citizen, which would be well worth it by itself.

The truth is, we don’t know exactly why college is beneficial. We certainly know that it is beneficial: Unemployment rates and median earnings are directly sorted by education level. Yes, even PhDs in philosophy and sociology have lower unemployment and higher incomes (on average) than the general population. (And of course PhDs in economics do better still.)

One thought on “Sheepskin effect doesn’t prove much

  1. […] Nor does Markovits stop at accusing employment of being rent-seeking; he takes aim at education as well: “when the rich make exceptional investments in schooling, this does reduce the value of ordinary, middle-class training and degrees. […] Meritocratic education inexorably engenders a wasteful and destructive arms educational arms race, which ultimately benefits no one, not even the victors.” (p.153) I don’t doubt that education is in part such a rent-seeking arms race, and it’s worthwhile to try to minimize that. But education is not entirely rent-seeking! At the very least, is there not genuine value in teaching children to read and write and do arithmetic? Perhaps by the time we get to calculus or quantum physics or psychopathology we have reached diminishing returns for most students (though clearly at least some people get genuine value out of such things!), but education is not entirely comprised of signaling or rent-seeking (and nor do “sheepskin effects” prove otherwise). […]

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