Breadth vs. Depth: The Timing of Specialization in Higher Education

Ofer Malamud

NBER Working Paper No. 15943
Issued in April 2010
NBER Program(s):Economics of Education Program, Labor Studies Program

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.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w15943

Published: Breadth vs. Depth: The Timing of Specialization in Higher Edu cation,” Labour , Vol. 24, No. 4 (2010): 359-390

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