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

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  • Ofer Malamud

Abstract

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. Together, these findings suggest that later specialization in Scotland is beneficial during the initial years in the labor market but that differences between early and late specialization do not persist over time.

Suggested Citation

  • Ofer Malamud, 2007. "Breadth vs. Depth: The Timing of Specialization in Higher Education," Working Papers 0808, Harris School of Public Policy Studies, University of Chicago.
  • Handle: RePEc:har:wpaper:0808
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    Keywords

    specialization; higher education; England; Scotland;

    JEL classification:

    • I21 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Education - - - Analysis of Education
    • J24 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demand and Supply of Labor - - - Human Capital; Skills; Occupational Choice; Labor Productivity

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