We know the paradox. Education improves earnings but most formal schooling appears to be a waste of time. Many economists claim that education is mostly a means of signaling quality. I view education as a self-commitment to being a more productive kind of person. Education is about self-acculturation.So to Cowen, higher education is about learning how to be an educated person. Educated people are different from people who are not educated. It is true that some people manage to educate themselves very well, but most do not. Hence, college.
Men are born beasts. But education gives you a peer group, a self-image, and some skills as well. Getting an education is like becoming a Marine. Men need to be made into Marines. By choosing many years of education, you are telling yourself that you stand on one side of the social divide. The education itself drums that truth into you.
Similarly, if you become a Mormon or a Protestant in Central America, your life prospects go up. It is not that Mormons have learned so much more, but rather they have a different sense of self. They have a positive self-image about their destiny in life and choose a different set of peers. They also choose not to drink.
The beasts model differs from classic signaling theory. If education is pure signaling, just give everyone a standardized test in seventh grade and then close up the schools. But the process of self-image formation, at least for most people, is far from complete at that point.
That being said, education will look like what the signaling model predicts. It will be about subtle brainwashing, image, and learning markers of status. What the signaling model misses is how important those features are for your subsequent productivity.
Nerds will hate education and tend to embrace the signaling model. Their sense of self is often formed quite early, and they do not why so much time should be wasted in school. This is one reason why the signaling model is so popular in economics.