Wednesday, June 20, 2012

College Majors: Technical is Better

For at least the past few months, Bryan Caplan has been subjecting the Twitterverse to an onslaught of tweets describing college education as little more than signaling. I'm still not convinced; I'll outsource some of my doubts to Noah Smith.

But in my infrequent conversations with the absent co-author of this blog, I have come up with one hard rule of thumb for young people considering college: major in the most technical thing you can stomach. It doesn't matter if you enjoy it. In fact, it's probably BETTER if you don't enjoy it.

As a student, you will have nearly infinite free time to pursue things you enjoy. These could be social activities, intramural sports, playing or performing music or dramas, or even reading about a subject you could have majored in. I can promise you that you will never use that infinite time to do something like "acquire more skills."

I personally got hired outside of my major (economics), based entirely on the skills I had acquired in my more technical minor (math). I have a very close acquaintance who is working outside her major and expressed significant regret that she lacks any tangible skills. Her major prepared her to be a college professor, but of course that career path would require another 5 years of school that she is not prepared to undertake today. So until then, she is underemployed.

Whether or not Bryan is right, my theory works. If signaling is the main function of college, it is a much better signal to have a technical major (math, statistics, or engineering) than a non-technical one (music, literature, government). If it is something else - human capital or otherwise - technical majors provide you with more skills that others do not have and make you more desirable to employers. They set you apart, which is one of the biggest battles for young people with sparse resumes.

Hail technicality!


Anonymous said...

Where would you place economics? It seems to lie in the space between "technical" and "nontechnical." How would it also explain the Sheepskin Effect that Caplan so often cites?

I also believe that it is good that your math experience has displaced other potential individuals who had aspirations for your job. It all likely hood, these individuals were probably education majors during their time at university.

I think, in most cases, being employed in the field of your hobby can be more rewarding that being employed in the field of your training. It also brings a more robust experience to the job. I guess the only downside is if one's hobby is in a technical field, it is hard to indicate competency in that specific field.

Pete Abbate said...


Thanks for reading. Economics definitely lies in between, but the undergraduate training at most places is actually NONtechnical. The technical training occurs at the Master's level. Undergrads learn to draw supply & demand curves but don't get rigorous training in doing regression analysis unless they seek it out.

I'm not sure what "it" you mean regarding the Sheepskin Effect. I had to look back here for some background on it.

I don't want to make a blanket statement about ALL education majors, but it is definitely good for teachers to have strong foundations in their disciplines. It's pretty tough to build conceptual understanding as a teacher if you lack a thorough understanding of the concept yourself!!

Totally agree on your last point. Don't think I have anything to add.

Compared with the totality of knowledge which is continually utilized in the evolution of a dynamic civilization, the difference between the knowledge that the wisest and that which the most ignorant individual can deliberately employ is comparatively insignificant. ~Fredrich Hayek in The Constitution of Liberty