Breadth vs. Depth: The Timing of Specialization in Higher Education
This paper examines the tradeoff between early and late specialization in the context of higher education. While some educational systems require students to specialize early by choosing a major field of study prior to entering university, others allow students to postpone this choice. I develop a model in which individuals, by taking courses in different fields of study, accumulate field-specific skills and receive noisy signals of match quality in these fields. With later specialization, students have more time to learn about match quality in each field but less time to acquire specific skills once a field is chosen. I derive comparative static predictions between educational regimes with early and late specialization, and examine these predictions across British systems of higher education. Using survey data on 1980 university graduates, I find strong evidence in support of the prediction that individuals who switch to unrelated occupations initially earn lower wages but less evidence that the cost of switching differs between England and Scotland. Although more switching occurs in England where students specialize early, higher wage growth among those who switch eliminates the wage difference after several years.
I wish to thank Claudia Goldin, Caroline Hoxby, and Larry Katz for extensive comments, as well as Nittai Bergman, Saar Golde, Jeff Grogger, Michael Kremer, Seema Jayachandran, Bob Lalonde, Steve Machin, Klaus Miescke, Derek Neal, Steve Pischke, Cristian Pop-Eleches, Sarah Reber, Bruce Sacerdote, Anna Vignoles, Abigail Waggoner, Tara Watson and seminar participants at Clemson University, Hebrew University, Harvard University, Michigan State University, Tel-Aviv University, UCSD, UC Riverside, University of Chicago, and the NBER Higher Education meeting for many helpful suggestions. I am grateful to the Universities Statistical Record, the UK Data Archive, and several university administrators in Scotland and England for assistance. All errors are my own. This work was supported by a grant from the Spencer Foundation. The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Bureau of Economic Research.