Job success is multi-dimensional

Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education argues that employers value college degrees not because college imparts skills and knowledge, but because a degree is a good signal that someone has a pretty high IQ, is conscientious, and mostly conforms to social norms.

Simply put: going to college helps you get a job not because of what you learn, but because it tells employers about who you are.

I found Caplan’s arguments both persuasive and a bit depressing. I get that from an employer’s perspective, it’s rational to focus on prospects with college degrees. I get that on average this sort of statistical discrimination is a smarter bet.

But even if this decision is rational, it still sucks for the many people who didn’t complete college but would do just as well in a given job.

I’ve had a few non-academic jobs since I graduated college over 15 years ago. My big take-away is that job success is multi-dimensional. I think the major dimensions are IQ, skills, knowledge, personality and talent. This metric is admittedly heuristic. But even if you quibble with the components, it captures the idea that job success depends on many factors.

Note that IQ is simply one of the components. It may be the most important. But it’s not everything. The smartest people aren’t always the most successful at a given job. (I describe a variation of this rubric in the clip above.)

Here’s the rub: IQ is probably the most important factor for college. The smartest people do tend to be the best students. I suspect that the academic approach to learning works for only the top ~20% of IQs, and so Caplan understates IQ as an initial filter. Only after eliminating the bottom 80% of IQs does college add in conscientiousness and conformity as filters.

But again…that really sucks for a lot of people. Many jobs don’t honestly require that much smarts. Even jobs that allegedly do (e.g. engineering) make coursework harder than it needs to be.

During college I tutored in the Penn State math center. I remember working with a forestry major who had to take calculus. Not the class for engineering or science students, but a much easier version.

He was a good kid who really wanted to do well. He came in several times for help, and even paid me to work with him one-on-one. But he still struggled, and didn’t pass the mid-term.

I’ve been thinking about this student a lot. What I keep coming back to is: why on earth do forestry majors need to take calculus?

Unless a significant number of forestry majors actually have to use calculus during their job (I’m doubtful), it shouldn’t be a requirement. Making it so is simply an unfair barrier to entry.

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