All the hard work at Harvard is done by the admissions officers who anoint an already-proven hypercompetitive elite. If that weren’t true — if superior instruction could explain the value of college — then why not franchise the Ivy League? Why not let more students benefit? It will never happen because the top U.S. colleges draw their mystique from zero-sum competition.The Economist on the same.
This debate hinges on two arcane issues of econometrics. First, what is the real return to education? You can't just compare the wages of those with and without degrees, because presumably the people with degrees were smarter on average anyway, and might get higher wages even without the degree.
Second, what is the social return to education? That is, suppose we can answer the first question, and know that a degree gets you, say, $10K more in salary. Is that because it makes you $10K more productive? Or does it just get you a higher paid job ahead of somebody else, without actually increasing social wealth at all? (As Peter Thiel says, maybe higher education is just "a tournament".)
Neither extreme is really plausible. It can't be that society would be completely unaffected if nobody got, say, engineering degrees. On the other hand, it is surely true that sometimes, education helps people queue-jump, rather than actually making us more productive. AFAICS we don't yet know where the truth lies and for what kinds of education.