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Is Half of College Education Wasted?

Trigger Warning: If you fancy yourself smart enough to understand complex social science, Bryan Caplan’s book, The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money, may lower your self-esteem. This is a serious, “academic” effort, six-years-in-the-making, and while Caplan, an economist at George Mason University and the Cato Institute, can be witty, this is not the breezy rant so common among today’s alarmist books on education.

The gist of Professor Caplan’s case is that there is way too much education, students waste hundreds of hours and millions of government-supplied dollars learning material that adds nothing of productive value or personal enrichment. Yes, high schools and colleges may occasionally produce a genius who invents Microsoft Word, but such accomplishments are exceedingly rare and cannot justify society’s massive investment in schooling. Learning history, for example, is only valuable for future history teachers, and how many history courses enrollees will pursue that vocation? Nor does the college experience broaden student cultural horizons. Most students, Caplan claims, are bored by “high culture” and even those who ace English Literature quickly forget everything.

Is It Just ‘Signaling?

Wastefulness understood, why do millions embrace the “more education” and “college-for-all” mantras? Is everybody delusional regarding the alleged financial payoff of a high school diploma or a college BA? Caplan explains this oddity with the concept of “signaling.” That is, a student’s educational record tells a potential employer a great deal about a person’s intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity, so students will invest prodigious (or minimal) effort to demonstrate worthiness largely independent of what is substantively acquired in the classroom.

Thus, a young man who completes a four-year degree at MIT in three years signals a potential employer that he is a great catch even if the acquired learning is, for the most part, vocationally irrelevant. Conversely, an equally talented youngster unable to graduate from a community college will not even be invited to a job interview. Who wants to hire somebody—no matter how smart–who lacks industry and perseverance? Employers cannot determine exactly what you learned, but they will happily pay a premium for those surviving the ordeal necessary to get the degree.

Caplan hardly argues that schooling is generally wasteful; only some of it, undoubtedly at least a third, he says, maybe even 50% or higher. Even the low side estimate of a third signifies an enormous squandering of personal time and government money.

Might this troubling calculation counsel that students should shun college, learn marketable skills elsewhere and invest saved tuition in the stock market? Hardly. The inherent nature of signaling dictates following the mob—not attending college only works if millions likewise share this disinclination to get a BA given that employers will judge your lack of a sheepskin as proof of unworthiness, regardless of your smarts and industry. The parallel is the futility of standing during a concert to see better; a strategy instantly defeated when everybody else stands.

Fluff Courses Make Sense

Going one step further, since employers only look at the credential as proof of worthiness, it is rational for an MIT student to enroll in as many fluff courses as possible from easy grading professors since employers cannot tell the difference and, to some extent, don’t care. The MIT degree itself suffices.

To make his case scientifically, Caplan marshals massive quantities of evidence and is totally unafraid of offering personal judgments. For example, he personally classifies both high school and college courses into three categories: high usefulness, medium usefulness, and low usefulness. High school subjects deemed highly useful are English and mathematics (further sub-divided so Algebra I is highly useful” while Geometry is of low usefulness”); low usefulness includes foreign languages and the social studies.

College courses are similarly classified—highly useful are engineering, health professionals, and agricultural majors. Wasted learning, predictably, is fine arts, psychology, journalism and the Liberal Arts more generally. All and all, judged by the distribution of college majors in 2008-9, 40.5% of college students are squandering their time and money, at least according to Professor Caplan’s judgment.

It gets worse: this learning, however modest, evaporates with age. When adults are quizzed about reading, math, history, civics, science and foreign languages, Americans can recall almost nothing despite years of exposure When 18,000 randomly selected American adults in 2003 were quizzed about reading, math, history, civics, science and foreign languages, they recalled almost nothing despite many of these subjects having been covered multiple times. Ample data also suggest that among today’s college students less and less time is devoted to learning so what ultimately remains in the brain will drop yet further. No wonder employers frequently complain about the difficulty of hiring good help!

No Gateway to High Culture

Nor does schooling instill an appetite for high culture, a love of “the best and the brightest. The market says that this endeavor is largely pointless—only a tiny portion of adults pursue “high culture” so schools are trying to satisfy minuscule future demands. If Caplan is right, returning to a cheap, bare-bones education that largely ends at 8th grade would not be a national catastrophe.

The bulk of The Case Against Education is spent disentangling the countless factors that contribute to the economic success that, at least partially rival the signaling explanation. This can get tedious and, alas, often relies on incomplete data and the intricacies of specific analytical techniques. It is conceivable, for example, that attending Harvard may be a low-yield learning experience, but it might help you to meet fellow students and alums able to offer you prestigious, well-paying jobs. Likewise, that Harvard graduates may get rich may have less to do with classroom learning than a person’s innate intelligence. Or, as some radical egalitarians insist, rich kids have the inside track to Harvard and join the elite thanks to their family’s pre-existing fortune. Nevertheless, the signaling explanation holds up rather well against rivals.

What does Caplan counsel after all the slash and burn analysis? His advice seems sensible: more and better vocational instruction, everything from classroom training to apprenticeships. In concrete terms, America employs roughly 900,000 carpenters but only 3,800 historians, so why not teach more carpentry than history? The Professor even puts in a word or two for child labor—better than boring fifteen-year-olds with how to diagram a sentence. Alas, that the government (and some private firms) already offers dozens of under-utilized vocational training programs receives scant attention.

The Case Against Education is a tour de force of modern economic analysis, but it skips over the payoff of “wasted” educational spending for society more generally. Even academically marginal schools with half-awake students can generate genuine value, for example, invigorating rustbelt towns hanging on for dear life. Hundreds—perhaps thousands– of these third-tier schools and their party-animal enrollees exist, and this “wastefulness” might be the most effective way to deliver the socially desirable economic uplift.

All Those Unemployed Professors

Similarly, what would Caplan do with all the unemployed professors (and armies of adjuncts and administrators) who would have taught such “useless” subjects as history, psychology, foreign languages? Easy to visualize thousands of unemployed Marxist Ph.D.’s scheming to elect a Bernie Sanders who promises college “for everybody.” In the grand scheme of things, it may be preferable to having all the Ph.D.’s “gainfully employed,” albeit pointlessly, versus working part-time in Starbucks. Keep in mind how much better the planet would be if the young Karl Marx had been able to secure a professorial appointment at the University of Jena.

So, if you have the Sitzfleisch and relish complex, clever and occasionally counter-intuitive, long-winded arguments, this is a great book. Even if you cannot fathom a word, carry it around and impress your friends with your erudition. As Oscar Wilde said, only shallow people do not judge by appearances, and Professor Caplan probably agrees though he would call it signaling.