Education

The Case Against Higher Education

Economist Bryan Caplan tells John Stossel that most people shouldn't go to college.

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Today, all Americans are told, "Go to college!"

President Obama said, "College graduation has never been more valuable."

But economist Bryan Caplan says that most people shouldn't go.

"How many thousands of hours did you spend in classes studying subjects that you never thought about again?" he asks.

Lots, in my case. At Princeton, I learned to live with strangers, play cards, and chase women, but I slept through boring lectures, which were most of them. At least tuition was only $2,000. Now it's almost $50,000.

"People usually just want to talk about the tuition, which is a big deal, but there's also all the years that people spend in school when they could have been doing something else," points out Caplan in my new YouTube video.

"If you just take a look at the faces of students, it's obvious that they're bored," he says. "People are there primarily in order to get a good job."

That sounds like a good reason to go to college. But Caplan, in his new book, The Case Against Education, argues that there's little connection between what we absorb in college and our ability to do a job.

"It's totally true that when people get fancier degrees their income generally goes up," concedes Caplan, but "the reason why this is happening is not that college pours tons of job skills into you. The reason is…a diploma is a signaling device."

It tells employers that you were smart enough to get through college.

But when most everyone goes to college, says Caplan, "You just raise the bar. Imagine you're at a concert, and you want to see better. Stand up and of course you'll see better. But if everyone stands up, you just block each other's views."

That's why today, he says, high-end waiters are expected to have college degrees.

"You aren't saying: you, individual, don't go to college," I interjected."You're saying we as a country are suckers to subsidize it."

"Exactly," replied Caplan. "Just because it is lucrative for an individual doesn't mean it's a good idea for a country."

Caplan says if students really want to learn, they can do it without incurring tuition debt.

"If you want to go to Princeton, you don't have to apply," he points out. "Just move to the town and start attending classes."

That's generally true. At most schools you can crash college lectures for free. But almost no one does that.

"In people's bones, they realize that what really counts is that diploma," concludes Caplan.

Because that diploma is now usually subsidized by taxpayers, college costs more. Tuition has risen at triple the rate of inflation.

It's not clear students learn more for their extra tuition, but colleges' facilities sure have gotten fancier. They compete by offering things like luxurious swimming pools and gourmet dining. That probably won't help you get a job.

"If you're doing computer science or electrical engineering, then you probably are actually learning a bunch of useful skills," Caplan says. But students now often major in abstract topics like social justice, diversity studies, multicultural studies.

"But don't the liberal arts expand people's minds?" I asked. Philosophy? Literature? Isn't it all making our brains work better?

"That's the kind of thing you expect teachers to say," answered Caplan. "There's a whole field of people who have actually studied this (and) they generally come away after looking at a lot of evidence saying, 'Wow, actually it's wishful thinking.'"

A study found that a third of people haven't detectably learned anything after four years in college.

Although Caplan thinks college is mostly a scam, he says there's one type of person who definitely benefits—professors like him.

"I'm a tenured professor," he said. "A tenured professor cannot be fired…. You got a nice income and there are almost no demands upon your time."

Professor Caplan is only expected to teach for five hours a week.

I told him that sounded like a government-subsidized rip-off.

"Yeah. Well, I'm a whistleblower," replied Caplan.

NEXT: Liberals Killed Roseanne. Conservatives Crushed the NFL Protests. Everybody Happy Now?

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  1. Ugh this is preposterous. Of course you should go to college. It’s a hell of a lot better than working. If cost is an issue then go some place cheap and get a part time job to defray expenses. Also the government needs to stop subsidizing college. This will reduce the cost in the long term, and not only that kids will take it more seriously if they have to pay for it. Also learning philosophy or literature is great and it’s sad to see it bashed here. People are not robots. I mean, they are but still.

    1. Of course you should go to college.

      Of course. It’s just obvious. It’s not like we live in the 21st century where people have easy access to massive amounts of information and where becoming an autodidact is more viable than ever. Not at all. Thus, you must go to college.

      Which college, though? Who knows. It seems like the quality of the education being offered would differ from college to college, but this isn’t about education; it’s about going to college and ticking off that particular checkbox.

      It’s so obvious that most people don’t actually care about education; they care about pieces of paper. Our society has been overrun by a disease known as “credentialism.”

      1. It’s also being overrun by the problem of people self-educating, which affords them the liberty to seek out only those facts they want to know. The major benefit of third-party instruction is that sometimes you’re introduced to concepts you didn’t even know existed.

        1. It’s also being overrun by the problem of people self-educating

          Pure nonsense. It’s the exact opposite: Most people are convinced that you need to go to a school to learn anything. Our society is sorely lacking when it comes to independent thinking.

          which affords them the liberty to seek out only those facts they want to know.

          Which could be done at a school as well, and often is. You simply ignore the facts that you don’t like.

          The major benefit of third-party instruction is that sometimes you’re introduced to concepts you didn’t even know existed.

          You know there are plenty of ways of finding out about the existence of those concepts outside of schools, right?

          Given all you’ve said, I bet you’ve barely learned anything since the moment you stopped receiving third-party instruction, if you learned anything at all to begin with.

          The vast majority of our colleges and universities are little better than the typical highschool; they heavily rely on rote memorization and deem that to be ‘education’. Telling people to go to college without specifying a good college is just going to result in them receiving a lousy education. But I suppose that doesn’t matter, since this was never about education to begin with.

        2. And many times the Prof just wants his garbage position parroted back to him. I had more English teachers in college grade on how well we copied the notes than did grade for creative thinking.

          1. I had more English teachers in college grade on how well we copied the notes than did grade for creative thinking

            The irony of this is, I recall one of my AP teachers in high school saying, “You don’t necessarily need to agree with the idea being asserted in the question. But if you take an alternative tack, you better have the evidence to back it up.”

    2. You should be banned for thinking like that.

    3. “It’s a hell of a lot better than working”

      The fact that you seem to think this is a good argument for college is all anyone needs to know to discount your entire comment

      1. BTW, college would probably cease to exist if it wasn’t subsidized

    4. Of course you should go to college. It’s a hell of a lot better than working.

      18-to-23-year-olds can get blind drunk and pass around STDs without taking out $10K a year in student loan debt to do so. At least working gets you a paycheck.

      1. We are at a time and place where we should be recording great teachers (think Coursera) for self paved study and switching most teachers to content experts who monitor and expand on that.
        Education costs should be minimal; how many profs require their own $200 book for a course just to pay themselves?

        1. The real costs of higher ed aren’t in the professor pool; they’re on the administrative side as student populations have exploded and the bureaucratic/managerial class in academia has grown along with it. Check out the administration directory of an average state college, and you’ll find a lot of “assistant dean of ____________” and “director of __________,” typically in some sort of affirmative action/”diversity” capacity that has nothing to do with academic growth and everything to do with left-wing intellectual fashions du jour. Most colleges use part-time instructors and TAs to teach classes, not professors, because they’re cheaper salary-wise and you don’t have to provide the same benefit packages (which is another reason the overall intellectual quality of colleges has dropped; most of the classes are being taught by less sophisticated academics). Not to mention even the state schools have gone on construction sprees to build facilities that would make a Beverly Hills housewife envious.

  2. I need to quibble about the suggestion that it is the specific content of some of these courses that matters.
    In at least some cases, the courses should not be about what to think, or think about, but rather how to think. Focusing on specific content degrades appreciation, and even recognition, of the importance of making and analyzing an argument, coming up with hypotheses and tests to refute them, and the various other tools of rational thought.

    1. That’s right. Too bad that the idiots who inhabit D.C. didn’t go to colleges and take courses that offer those contents.

    2. Focusing on specific content degrades appreciation, and even recognition, of the importance of making and analyzing an argument, coming up with hypotheses and tests to refute them, and the various other tools of rational thought.

      The check from the college professors union is in the mail.

    3. Sorry, hoss. The teaching of rhetoric was quietly nixed by the architects of compulsory education a century ago.

  3. I wish I could have followed Caplan’s advice. I hated college. But I also realized that it was not feasible to practice my profession without an advanced degree because of the nature of the industry. Basically, the government forces many of us to get degrees through licensure and the economic monopolization of certain areas. Private industry is receptive to this idea because it’s a relatively cheap screening device. Offloading training costs to the taxpayer in this way is actually a good example of corporate welfare, but that’s not a phrase conservatives like to acknowledge…

    1. Offloading training costs to the taxpayer in this way is actually a good example of corporate welfare, but that’s not a phrase conservatives like to acknowledge…

      My alma mater was and is supported by the local business community for precisely this reason. Right around the late 60s-early 70s, businesses figured out that not only could they use the possession of a degree to screen applicants, but they could also “work with” the colleges to “establish skill-based training curriculums” so that the students were paying for their own supposed training rather than the other way around.

      1. I’ve been trying to reverse this trend by approaching companies (often large ones) with a relatively simple proposition: pay for this kid to get his graduate degree and he will work on a project of your choosing, with (free) oversight from me. Companies often like this idea — it’s a good idea. They can get a useful small project completed and can give a prospective employee a trial run working on the same stuff he would be working on after being hired! The benefit to the economy is that it would divert the training costs back to the companies, shifting some of the burden away from the student and the taxpayer.

        But there isn’t a very good mechanism to get it to happen. Yes, NSF and NIH and others have established mechanisms that promote industry-academia partnerships that do this sort of thing, but there are two main obstacles: 1) there aren’t enough of those programs to go around, 2) intellectual property is almost always an insurmountable obstacle. Everybody wants their fucking piece, which is the moral of the story. If we want to establish partnerships between the educational system and big business, or the public sector and big business, we need to do a better job of working out the IP issues.

        1. And the irony of corporations sloughing off “training” to the colleges is that, not only have colleges been churning out graduates steeped in theory but little real-world experience, they end up having to perform a bunch of OJT anyway after they hire the kid to get them up to speed. The theory was that you could throw a fresh college graduate right on the floor and he or she would pick things up right away, but in reality that’s not what happens. It’s why so many of these so-called “entry-level” jobs require 2-5 years of experience already.

          Going back to the old system would make things a lot easier on everyone, but businesses are naturally cognizant of their bottom lines and don’t want to touch anything that they feel will significantly drain that, even if it would be better for their overall performance and workforce development in the long run.

          1. not only have colleges been churning out graduates steeped in theory but little real-world experience

            Except that they aren’t even “steeped in theory”; the typical graduate understands nothing. The vast majority of colleges and universities try to “educate” people in the same way that the typical high school does: Through rote memorization. The problem is, rote memorization does not actually lead to a deep understanding of the theory, and whatever facts were memorized are usually quickly forgotten.

            The standards in our country (and others) are abysmal.

            1. I don’t know what you mean by “typical graduate”. I see graduates all the time who have already gathered 3 or 4 years of real world experience working either directly for companies, academic labs (for example), or internships. I send my undergraduates out with shitloads of real world experience. And I know I’m not alone on this, because I interview incoming graduate students who have gained the same kinds of experience. But then you are right, you have other students who attend college and think that showing up at a few classes is sufficient training. If HR departments are unable to distinguish these vastly different types of students (or if they’re just not attracting the better ones), it’s an HR issue. My two cents.

              1. I’m speaking of theory, not merely work skills. The typical graduate often has neither, in my experience.

                I’ve seen countless CS graduates who can’t even write a FizzBuzz program, or similar simple programs that are just designed to quickly weed out absolute morons in the hiring process.

                The best workers we have are all independent-minded people capable of self-educating. While some of them have degrees, I could easily imagine them having been fine without college. Too bad most employers engage in the credentialism game and miss out on good employees, thereby further fueling the ‘Everyone has to go to college!’ scam.

                1. 80-20 rule; 80% of fresh grads are boobs who can’t find their way out of a paper bag unassisted. 20% are sharp as a tack.
                  One would assume that the 20% would be competent at whatever they do, with or without the four year guaranteed loan debt…

        2. I suppose the other part of it too is that businesses on the mid-tier are afraid they’ll train these folks up and then lose them to global mega-corps that can offer far more generous salaries and benefit packages.

          1. Oh it’s absolutely a fear. But the thing is — that’s often what happens with OJT too.

  4. I know I’ve told this story before, but as anyone knows that won’t stop me from telling it again.

    When I worked in restaurants in my 20s there were may people who were in or out of college. One waitress graduated summa cum laude with a Masters in English. There was another waiter with a BS in Environmental Science. Several managers has liberal arts degrees.
    However everyone who studied anything engineering related disappeared after graduation. Because they found a “real” job.

    Once upon a time, useless degrees were for the leisurely rich. They could afford it. Now anyone can, because Uncle Sam will pay for it.

    1. However everyone who studied anything engineering related disappeared after graduation. Because they found a “real” job.

      It took me six years after finishing grad school, and 11 years after undergrad, to find a decent full-time job related to my history degree. I’ve made sure to tell people who pursue the liberal arts path that they better be willing to relocate and work a lot of temporary/seasonal jobs before/after graduation if they really want to go that professional route. When you finally land the job you want, it’s great, but it’s a pain-in-the-ass slog to get there and it’s not something that’s conducive to a world where the average student loan debt after graduation is $25K and climbing.

      And my experience mirrors yours–when I waited tables, the people who got non-liberal arts degrees were typically gone within about 2-3 months after finishing school.

    2. Well, generous but strict loans will pay for it, and I think people should definitely think hard about whether to take one out for a degree that will likely not allow them to pay it off any time soon.

      But if people are only incentivized to pursue vocational goals in higher education, we lose the entire point of it, which is to create generations of people with well-rounded educations. Working for a living is a form of servitude. We should aspire to a society in which more people can have the leisure time to actually be thinkers and contributors to the human project rather than just cogs who do code and build widgets for the sake of some CEO’s vacation house.

      1. “But if people are only incentivized to pursue vocational goals in higher education, we lose the entire point of it, which is to create generations of people with well-rounded educations.”

        And failing: https://www.reason.com/archives/2018/0…..ts-schools

        “Working for a living is a form of servitude.”

        Aww, Tony doesn’t like Say’s Law, that one must produce in order to consume!

        “We should aspire to a society in which more people can have the leisure time…”

        And who actually produces? That magical “other” tribe/class that doesn’t deserve leisure time? How do you plan on doing this without sending men-with-guns (government) against that other tribe/class?

        1. And who actually produces?

          Your question is easy to answer. Technology. It’s no secret that the human race has gotten vastly more efficient at producing. The simple thought experiment here is to measure how much labor is required to achieve the same ends (standard of living) that we had, say, 100 years ago. And to compare it to the amount of labor required back then.

          I agree with Tony on this point — and I don’t think it’s incompatible with what conventional libertarians have to say. Rational self interest may (and often does) include having to work less.

          I recently listened to a Kevin Carson interview where he talked pretty extensively about this sort of thing re: monetary policy. We need major technical paradigm shifts to improve living standards, which include requiring less labor to achieve the same degree of production. I think what Tony is suggesting is that “technical” in this sense doesn’t only include the traditional STEM fields.

      2. But if people are only incentivized to pursue vocational goals in higher education, we lose the entire point of it

        if that’s the case, the point’s really been lost for a while. People largely aren’t going to college to get well-rounded educations, they’re going because they know it’s a requirement in the white-collar world to procure a well-paying job down the line. Honestly, the people doing liberal arts studies are probably the vast majority of those who are going to college with the goal of broadening their intellectual horizons, but knowing how to deconstruct a Henry James novel or explain the flaws in Lee’s tactics at Gettysburg isn’t going to pay the bills unless you get a tenure-track position. For most, those classes are something to be endured before they’re allowed to take the ones they really want to take for their major.

        1. if that’s the case, the point’s really been lost for a while. People largely aren’t going to college to get well-rounded educations, they’re going because they know it’s a requirement in the white-collar world to procure a well-paying job down the line.

          If this were true, then why do so many people deliberately major in subjects that they know tend to be lower paying?

          1. Undeveloped future time orientation. It’s also not an accident that women now make up the majority of college students these days–most of them are majoring in easy shit like liberal arts, education, or social sciences rather than hard sciences. These are the people who become click-bait journalists, elementary school teachers, and social workers after graduation, which is all their degree is good for, but flatters their egos to believe they’re “making a difference.”

          2. I’d add that people with a degree are still far more likely to have higher incomes, on average, than those who don’t, although those numbers are certainly being skewed by the non-liberal arts degree holders. And that’s primarily due to the culture of credentialism we currently live in.

  5. To see the worth of a field of learning as consisting solely of its business utility is basically a dog’s philosophy–“if you can’t eat it or mate with it, pee on it…”

  6. I tell all my students college is a racket.

  7. Most people in my generation at public universities paid cash for their classes, and we were fairly demanding that the classes were taught by decent teachers.

    Any class that was taught by someone actively working in the field (I was an EE major) was immediately fully booked.

    There were several professors that couldn’t fill a classroom to save their lives.

    Not coincidentally, I could pay for my college as well as room, board, and copious amounts of liquor by working full time during the summer and part time during college.

    We need to stop subsidizing colleges, and businesses need to start requiring skill certifications rather than degrees.

    That latter will never happen because HR managers are terrified someone will notice their degree isn’t worth anything.

    1. businesses need to start requiring skill certifications rather than degrees.

      What’s the difference? Rather — what would be the difference once businesses start requiring certifications and government starts funding (and naturally regulating) certificate programs to ensure that no child is left behind?

      1. With a certification you can rid of the nebulous ‘well rounded person’ nonsense, which is code for ‘indoctrination into whatever is popular today’.

        By certification I mean you get a certificate that says you have a single skill at some level.

        The position posting states what you need to do your job: Python scripting, Excel spreadsheet debugging, HP plotter maintenance. You get the job if you are certified that you know these things, rather than having some omnibus theoretical skill set covered by some degree program.

        The certificates have more value because they can be evaluated individually and can be pinned to a time frame.

        It takes a lot less infrastructure to do certification (remember, you aren’t teaching, you are certifying a skill set), which means there will be a whole lot more diversity and competition.

  8. This begs the obvious question… assuming he has them, did Professor Caplan encourage them to go to college?

    Or, like most professional well-paid educated folk that like to complain about how terrible college is, did he send his kids to college anyway?

    1. Should read “[…] did Professor Caplan encourage [his kids] to go to college?” Rewrote the line but screwed up the (pro)nouns.

      1. I can’t speak for Caplan, but I’m planning to encourage my kids to go the vocational route if they can. Unfortunately, with the death of most vo-tech programs at the high school level they’d probably be left without a solid foundation in the basics. I can teach them a few things, but it’s different when you’re actively doing it every single day.

        And like I told Arthur L. Hicklib, working within a system that’s prejudiced towards college degrees as a de facto hiring mechanism hardly means that you can’t criticize it for existing that way.

        1. Can he criticize it? Obviously he can.

          But you can’t tell me it doesn’t look fishy when he says “oh, I meant other people’s kids. Of course my kids should go to college and get an education.”

          Making calls for individual sacrifices to fix societal ills, when you are unwilling to make those sacrifices yourself, will never not smell fishy.

          1. But you can’t tell me it doesn’t look fishy when he says “oh, I meant other people’s kids. Of course my kids should go to college and get an education.”

            Is he actually saying that?

            1. See my original question.

              That said, apparently someone else did some sleuthing on Stossel in the “College Scam” thread and Stossel did do that.

              1. I’m not sure how that negates the original point. College-educated people are likely going to expect their kids to go to college. But if my grad school experience is anything to go by, most people who are going have no business being there, even if their parents expect them to.

                Ultimately, college isn’t going to get cheaper or more rigorous until it becomes a lot more exclusive again. It’s fallen victim to the same limits of scale as most every other American institution since the 60s.

        2. “I’m planning to encourage my kids to go the vocational route if they can.”

          According to an article within the past week in WaPo, and to a couple of other articles I’ve stumbled across in the past year or two, there’s a big shortage of truck drivers, especially long-distance drivers, although the pay is good. Applicants need to spend many months at a trade school and get a good grade before employers will consider them, though.

  9. I’m not surprised that Stossel would opine on this subject… Because in his world, everyone should act and be treated as he decides… This explains HIS opinion on higher education, and it spells out exactly why his opinion on this issue should be sent to the circular file…

    Stossel characterizes himself as having been “an indifferent student” while in college, commenting, “I daydreamed through half my classes at Princeton, and applied to grad school only because I was ambitious, and grad school seemed like the right path for a 21-year-old who wanted to get ahead.” Although he had been accepted to the University of Chicago’s School of Hospital Management, Stossel was “sick of school” and thought taking a job would inspire him to embrace graduate studies with renewed vigor.

    In other words. Stossel didn’t like school, so everyone else should be prevented from attending too? OK… Derp!

    1. In other words. Stossel didn’t like school, so everyone else should be prevented from attending too? OK… Derp!

      When did he say that they should be “prevented” from going? The actual issue at hand is the attitude that everyone should go to college, even people who would be better off working or self-educating.

    2. Your poasting career is truly an exemplar of how dumb shitlibbery can make a person.

  10. Very bad form for you to make this statement without properly citing the source:

    “A study found that a third of people haven’t detectably learned anything after four years in college.”

    Please do so. Thank you.

  11. Very bad form for you to make this statement without properly citing the source:

    “A study found that a third of people haven’t detectably learned anything after four years in college.”

    Please do so. Thank you.

  12. The author is clueless about the costs of education. When he writes that “Because that diploma is now usually subsidized by taxpayers, college costs more. Tuition has risen at triple the rate of inflation.” he is clearly ignorant of the fact that taxpayers used to pay the public universities directly for well over half the cost of running the schools, whereas today in many states it’s as low as 5% of the cost that comes from the state budgets. What HAS happened is that a huge portion of the burden of paying for a college education has shifted to the students through various loan programs. Taxpayer subsidization of the diploma is way DOWN.

    For many years the states found that having a public university educating students was a benefit to the whole state, created a better, stronger workforce, and generally paid for itself indirectly in a stronger economy. Today they want to continue the control that came with the public funds, but not actually deliver the funds, while the students strangle with crushing debt upon graduation.

  13. Dunno, i spend really productive time at college so now i’m working on a work i wanted to: at https://vip-writers.com. The one big minus is the price of education. I’m totally agree with that.

  14. good article

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