Signals v Causes: High School Graduate

I often hear folks say that people with a high school diploma today cannot expect to do as well as folks did with high school diplomas in previous generations.

One cause offered to explain this is less opportunity because good manufacturing jobs have gone to machines and foreign competition.

More likely, K-12 education hasn’t evolved to teach students skills that are valued in today’s economy. I got this idea from Jeffrey Sachs, this week’s guest on EconTalk. I didn’t agree with everything Sachs had to say, but I did agree with this and recommend listening to the podcast.

Also, maybe education has evolved away from teaching such skills as curriculum designers have included things thought to enrich and broaden the students lives, but really just serve the personal preferences of those designers.

When I was truly on my own for the first time, I remember thinking how ill-equipped I was to determine something as practical as how much house I could afford, even though I did know what Keynesian multipliers were. Luckily, I educated myself by turning to personal finance magazine and books and asking friends and family. I wasn’t surprised later when it became clear with the housing crisis that many others also did not have this practical knowledge, either.

I was also annoyed that I learned in school how important it was for me to exercise my right to vote, but there was no mention about doing my homework on the issues and carefully considering who I voted for.

It is also more likely that a high school diploma, once viewed as a reliable indicator of demonstrated mastery in skills, knowledge and behaviors that were of some value to employers, is now viewed as a participation trophy — a mere bauble to add to the recipient’s trophy case — as standards have slipped and the purpose of a high school diploma have changed. 

I believe the purpose of the high school diploma was to reward the folks who tried. Somewhere along they way, however, that got too hard. We didn’t want to tell someone they didn’t deserve something because they didn’t put in the effort or meet the standard. Rather than expect them to rise up to the standard, we lowered it for them.