Education may be free but the credential is not

by Grace

Guillaume Dumas attended classes, made friends, and networked on some of America’s most prestigious campuses—for free….

The schools included Yale, Brown, UC Berkeley, and Stanford.  But he did not obtain what is arguably the most valuable part of an elite college education.

… Most people go to college primarily to get a piece of paper, and learning is something that happens incidentally….

Economist Bryan Caplan, who has extensively studied the college wage premium, elaborates on the signaling benefit of a degree, derived largely from actually receiving a diploma.

… Most of the financial reward of education comes from finishing degrees. Since diplomas used to be written on sheepskin, this finding is known as the “sheepskin effect.”

Researchers usually interpret sheepskin effects as signaling. If finishing your last year of college sharply boosts your income, the reason probably isn’t that colleges withhold the financially lucrative material until your senior year.

College professors don’t usually need to police their classrooms to prevent people like Dumas from sitting in on classes because lectures and assignments are not the most valuable components of what they are offering.  Those components are mostly steps on the road to the real reward — a college degree.

Students who never enrolled, or perhaps more significantly never paid for their courses, are not a concern for colleges.

Ollivier Dyens, deputy provost of student life and learning at McGill, explained why his university wasn’t worried about this sort of activity. “Not a lot of people will go through all of this without having some sort of credentials attached to it,” he says….


Joe Pinskermar, “The Man Who Snuck Into the Ivy League Without Paying a Thing”, The Atlantic, March 5, 2015.

Bryan Caplan, “The Present Value of a Sheepskin”, EconLog, January 20, 2012.

4 Comments to “Education may be free but the credential is not”

  1. I honestly cannot see how this was possible. Most schools today ise LMS’s like Blackbook to manage every aspect of the course. That is where the notes are posted, that is where students submit assignments, that is where the gradebook lives, and often, even things like in class work, quizzes, and discussion boards live in the LMS. A student who isn’t registered doesn’t exist in the LMS. If he wasn’t in the LMS, then he probably wasn’t doing most of the work or getting feedback on assignments. Just going and listening to lectures is not the same thing as actually getting an education at an institution. So he missed the most valuable part, but that may not have been the diploma – it may have been the education.


  2. Yes, it does seem he missed out on the assignments and feedback, but actually learning is not valued as much to many people as networking is. Not that this guy did it, but he could have learned much of the same material by other means, including MOOCs. Not everything, but a lot.


  3. Not much networking happens during lectures. I tihnk this guy is just bragging.


  4. Oh, he lived near campus and attended parties, confirmed by the author. Attending class probably fooled many of his student friends.


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