Disruptive Innovation and Job-Market Signaling

8 January 2014 at 10:54 am 4 comments

| Peter Klein |

The job-market value of education, as famously argued by Michael Spence (1974), derives from two sources: additions to human capital and signaling. By going to college, you learn some useful skills, but you also demonstrate to potential employers that you have the natural ability to earn a degree. Depending on the difficulty of obtaining a degree for students of varying abilities, a college degree may be valuable even if you don’t learn a thing — you distinguish yourself from those who weren’t clever or patient enough to jump through the necessary hoops.

Of course, the human-capital and signaling components aren’t mutually exclusive. But, as long as at least some part of the job-market value of education comes from signaling, the demand for higher education depends on its perceived signaling value, relative to the cost of signaling. And herein lies the rub: getting a college degree is a very costly signal. Suppose high-ability workers could demonstrate their value to the job market by obtaining some credential that low-ability workers can’t or won’t obtain, without forgoing the explicit and opportunity costs of 4+ years at college. This would be an attractive alternative for many, and bad news for the higher-education industry, which today has a virtual monopoly on credentialing.

Michael Staton makes precisely this argument in today’s HBR Blog: “The Degree Is Doomed.” Staton argues that new technologies increasingly allow the unbundling of the learning and signaling functions of higher education, and that alternative signals such as “work samples, personal representations, peer and manager reviews, shared content, and scores and badges” are undermining the value of the college degree.

There are sites — notably Degreed and Accredible — that adapt existing notions of the credential to a world of online courses and project work. But there are also entire sectors of the innovation economy that are ceasing to rely on traditional credentials and don’t even bother with the skeumorph of an adapted degree.  Particularly in the Internet’s native careers – design and software engineering — communities of practice have emerged that offer signals of types and varieties that we couldn’t even imagine five years ago.   Designers now show their work on Dribbble or other design posting and review sites.  Software engineers now store their code on GitHub, where other software engineers will follow them and evaluate the product of their labor.  On these sites, peers not only review each other but interact in ways that build reputations within the community. User profiles contain work samples and provide community generated indicators of status and skill.

These are specialized areas, and probably not substitutes for the credentialing function for other fields and industries. But low-cost, innovative, specialized signaling methods could pose a significant challenge to the university establishment.

Of course, even if higher education loses its credentialing function, it can still add value the old-fashioned way, through teaching.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Education, Innovation, Institutions, Teaching. Tags: .

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