Modern Higher Education: Signaling over Substance

June 7, 2015 0 1518


There may have been times during your academic career when you asked yourself, “Why do I need to know this?” Mastery of some concepts may seem to add no value to your life beyond the classroom, not to mention to your future employer. Often, you will be correct when making this assumption. Much of what you learn in school will not be required knowledge in the future. Our modern education system is wasteful of society’s resources; most prominently, it is wasteful of your time and energy. However, this does not appear to be changing anytime soon. It is in your own best interests to understand these inefficiencies and utilize them to your benefit.

Education, especially at the collegiate level, has become a mechanism for students to signal their ability to employers. This concept is disheartening to some because this mechanism signals ability and does not necessarily reward true ability. You’ve likely observed similar signaling strategies in high school students applying to colleges. Many high school students participate in extracurricular activities for the sole purpose of including these activities in their college applications. Parents hire tutors to prepare their children for standardized tests such as the SAT. The purpose of these tactics is to maximize the signaled ability to the college admissions officers so that the student can attend the best possible school. Why does this happen? Because it works. The student who does not study for the test but scores a 700 on the math section of the SAT is probably more proficient in math than the student who spends 40 hours preparing and scores a 720. However, colleges only see the score and not the back story behind it.

The same can be said of employers. When reviewing your resume, employers see your GPA and not the fact that you worked 20 hours a week while other students were not hindered by such burdens. Keeping this in mind, you should prioritize the assignments that have the greatest effect on your GPA and delegate tasks when possible. Speaking personally with your professors for a few minutes a week during office hours is a great way to improve your GPA with low time investment. This does not necessarily mean that you should transform every aspect of your education into a cost-benefit analysis for future employment. Do you take pleasure in reading Shakespeare for your English literature course? Love your sculpture class even though you’re a psychology major? By all means, spend your time and energy on these aspects of your education if they truly inspire you. However, if your primary goal is to find employment, understand that employers will only know what you are able to show them.
You have a limited amount of time at your disposal. Assuming that you want to find the best possible employment opportunities and spend some of your time in college doing things you actually enjoy, it is necessary to focus on what your academic record is signaling to employers.


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