College and Culture

Evan Soltas is a contributor to Bloomberg View.
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Why does anybody go to college? Economists usually suggest three reasons: investment, signaling and consumption.

A college education is a form of investment in human and social capital. Students gain knowledge and hone their intellectual talents. They learn outside the classroom, too -- developing "soft skills" and social savoir-faire. They form relationships and join networks.

College is also about signaling -- a way to tell employers, potential spouses and co-op boards that you are smart, diligent and productive. College doesn't necessarily make you any of these things, but in selecting from the pool of applicants, it provides an identifying stamp.

College is also a consumption good. Students are not learning or signaling so much as enjoying themselves.

None of these ideas captures the cultural role of college. Going to college is a kind of rite, and the value of higher education comes partly from the "thin air" of social expectations.

In the U.S., the cultural function of college is especially clear in the Jewish and Asian communities. In both, higher education comes close to being an imperative.

According to General Social Survey data, 62 percent of Jews and 52 percent of Asians born between 1950 and 1970 have at least a bachelor's degree. That compares with 23 percent of the same age group in the general population.

Those numbers reflect a strong bias toward education. Evidence on attitudes confirms it. According to the survey, members of both groups are unusually likely to express enthusiasm for education -- saying that it's important for skill development, that achievement in life depends on it, that they have confidence in educational institutions and that it's essential to getting ahead.

College education is also culturally important to a much broader population: the educated. Education encourages education. If your father was a college graduate, you're roughly three times as likely to earn a degree than if your father only graduated high school, holding income constant.

The cultural aspect is evident in the way people decide whether to go to college. Students don't make the choice independently. The attitudes of parents and relatives have a strong bearing. In addition, students lack full information, so they rely on heuristics -- rules of thumb -- including cultural intuition. If the cultural expectation leans toward college, uncertain students are likely to be swayed by it.

The cultural theory of college fills gaps left by the trio of economic explanations. Economics wouldn't lead you to expect the big demographic differences in educational attainment. Without the cultural component, there'd be no reason to expect college to be more lucrative, or the signaling effect more powerful or the recreation any more enjoyable, for some groups rather than others.

Admittedly, you could argue that cultural practices have economic roots -- a line of thought that comes down from Thomas Hobbes, who said that religion was a social mechanism to replace armed coercion. The cultural value of college may be indirectly economic.

Even so, I think this "everything-is-economic" logic is often taken too far, and explaining the value of college in purely economic terms is a good example. Let's not deny the obvious: College is cultural.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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