The Case Against Education: Economist Bryan Caplan Says Government Spending of $1 Trillion a Year on Schooling Is a Waste

"If all we're trying to do is prepare people for a job, why not prepare them with a job?"

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"It's absolutely true that school makes people show up, sit down, shut up and that these are useful skills for people to have in adulthood, " says Bryan Caplan, a professor of economics at George Mason University who blogs at EconLog and is the author of the new book The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money. "So the real question is if all we're trying to do is prepare people for a job, why not prepare them with a job?"

Caplan argues that schools are not only overpriced, but that traditional education fails to prepare students with job skills that reflect the needs of the labor market.

Reason's Nick Gillespie sat down with Caplan to make the case that the government needs to spend so much on education if it isn't relevant to our success in getting a job and earning higher wages.

Reason is a proud media partner of National School Choice Week, an annual event promoting the ability of parents and students to have greater options in K-12 education. Go here [http://schoolchoiceweek.com] to get more information about events and data about how increasing school choice–charters, vouchers, educational savings accounts, and more—is one of the best ways to improve education for all Americans. For a constantly updated list of stories on education, go to Reason's archive page on "school choice".

Interview by Nick Gillespie. Edited by Alexis Garcia. Camera by Meredith Bragg and Mark McDaniel.

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This is a rush transcript. Check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.

Nick Gillespie: I'm Nick Gillespie for Reason and today we are talking with the author of what is almost certainly going to be the most controversial book of the year. Bryan Caplan is an economics professor at George Mason University, and his new book is The Case Against Education. Bryan, thanks for talking with Reason.

Bryan Caplan: Thanks for such an exciting introduction.

Gillespie: Well, let's get right to it. Early on you say flatly, you write flatly, 'This book argues that our education system is a big waste of time and money.' And now you're not simply saying that our schools are overpriced and uneven in quality, you are actually making the case that much of our traditional education system, especially higher ed, is literally a waste of time, right?

Caplan: Absolutely.

Gillespie: What do you mean by that?

Caplan: What I mean is that people are going there to get a higher income, but they're actually not getting much in the way of job skills, which raises a big puzzle for an economist. How can they be getting a higher income if they're not getting much in the way of job skills? And my answer comes down to something called the signaling model of education that says that a lot of the reason why education pays isn't that you learn useful skills, but that you distinguish yourself. That you're getting stamped or labeled. You're getting a sticker on your forehead, Grade A worker.

Gillespie: So it's kind of like you come out as a piece of steak. You're USDA prime, but you haven't been cooked yet. Well, you haven't …

Caplan: Precisely. And the the key thing about this is, selfishly speaking, it doesn't really matter why you're getting more money. But from a social point of view, from the point of view of is this a good use of taxpayer dollars, it matters tremendously because everybody just gets more years in education and all you're doing is showing off. Then you're just raising the bar for how much school you need in order to get a job in the first place.

Gillespie: So let's talk about the magnitude of wasted time and money. I guess for most people, if you go from kindergarten through a B.A. you're talking about 17 years roughly. So that's a lot of time, but how much money do we spend as a society on education?

Caplan: Yeah, so government funding is about a trillion dollars a year when you add up all levels.

Gillespie: Our economy is about 20 trillion dollars, so that's a large chunk of change.

Caplan: Yeah, so you're talking about something like 5 percent of all GDP. And then of course private spending tops it up a bit further, so it's something over a trillion.

Gillespie: And by the way, the one thing that's interesting about this is you don't really make a distinction between private and public education, because this isn't a book about how the public school system is failing kids. It's just how education is useless.

Caplan: I mean, I know libertarians want to hear a different story, but I'm telling the story that I think is true rather than the story that I would even find ideologically most congenial. For me, the main thing is I've gone to public school. I've gone to private school. I don't really see very much difference. And in both cases it seems to me that most of what's going on is showing off in order to look better for the labor market. Which, again, individually makes perfect sense, but socially speaking, everyone can't be above average.

Gillespie: So this is kind of like a private vice is actually becomes a public vice because … Or rather a private virtue becomes a public vice because …

Caplan: Yeah. I mean, I think of education as being a lot like football stadiums, where like the main libertarian complaint about football stadiums isn't that we're not making the right kind of football stadiums. It's that government is pouring a ton of money on something, and really what we need is to have fewer worse football stadiums.

Gillespie: But more money left to for people to spend in a meaningful way.

Caplan: Yeah. But possibly not on football stadiums. Possibly on totally different things.

Gillespie: Before we go into the signaling model per se, talk a little bit about the human capital model of education because these are the two big competing explanations. What is the human capital education model?

Caplan: Yeah, the human capital model is a fancy phrase for what your teachers and politicians and your parents have been telling you, which is you go to school to get smart and to learn all kinds of useful stuff which you're then going to apply in the real world.

Gillespie: You're investing in yourself.

Caplan: Yeah, you're investing in yourself. So you're transforming unskilled laborer into a skilled, talented adult. It's most associated with Gary Becker. You know, a famous Nobel prize-winning economist. But really he was just putting an academic veneer on something that is widely propagandized in favor of the idea of school as a skills factory.

Gillespie: It's not simply … I mean, very few people, and I mean, you point this out continuously in the book and I think accurately, nobody if you go to take a shop class, you're not going to go and learn how to cut ninja stars out of sheets of metal and that's the job you're going to have in a factory. But the idea is that you learn skills. That you learn how to show up on time. You learn how to listen and follow instructions. You learn how to self-learn. And you're saying that this is actually not a very … Like how do you know that that's not an accurate model?

Caplan: Right. That's one of the best arguments in favor of the education we have. It's one by the way that people usually have to be forced into after a series of intellectual retreats. But, you know, here's the main thing that I say about that. It's absolutely true that school makes people show up, sit down, shut up and that these are useful skills for people to have in adulthood. So the real question is if all we're trying to do is prepare people for a job, why not prepare them with a job instead of with school where the overlap … There is a partial overlap in skills, but there of course is a lot of stuff that you're taught in school that is dysfunctional in the real world, like it's very important for everything to be fair. Jobs aren't fair, but school, everything has to be fair.

Gillespie: Talk about the sheepskin effect, because for me, this is the thing that totally whatever affection I had for the human capital model of education, this really kind of kicked that to the curb.

Caplan: So diplomas used to be written on the skins of sheep and the sheepskin effect refers to the fact that a lot of the payoff from education comes from crossing the finish line, from graduation, a disproportionate amount. So like in the book, I just average over a whole lot of studies. So as for college, finishing senior year pays something like seven times as much as a regular year. Seven times as much. Now either we save almost all the useful job skills for graduation year, which sounds really implausible. You know, your senior year is goof-off year, not finally-learn-some-job-skills year. Or there's something going on in the rewards for education that's not about skills that you're learning. And I say, like the main thing that we're getting is it's a signal of conformity. In our society, you are expected to graduate. Everyone tells you to graduate. If you fail to do so despite all of this social pressure, you're saying something very bad about yourself and the labor market responds negatively to you.

Gillespie: Although one of the things that I think is really interesting about the book is that you do steer clear of extremes because there are … Immediately you can hear people saying, "Well, what about Steve Jobs? What about Bill Gates?"

Caplan: Of course.

Gillespie: 'What about Michael Dell?' There's the list of … Or Andrew Carnegie for that matter. So I mean, you're not saying that all of these things are infinite extremely perfectly, right?

Caplan: Yeah, no, of course. So I have two chapters that are the most quantitative part where I sit around trying to crunch the numbers and say what fraction of the payoff for education comes from human capital, what fraction comes from signaling. Of course, you learn reading, and writing, and math in school to some degree. And of course those are useful job skills. But what fraction of the time that you're in school is really learning anything you're ever going to use again? What fraction of the payoff comes from what you've learned rather than what you've demonstrated you can do?

Gillespie: What do you do with the arguments that, well, school maybe or education and particularly K-12 education is not for job skills, but it's for citizenship. And this is … You know, it's … The progressive era talked a lot about that, like we need to make good citizens, especially out of increased numbers of immigrants who had no understanding of American history. Where does that fall in the human capital model?

Caplan: Right. So I mean that would actually be totally outside of it. Again, like human capital versus signaling are trying to figure out why do employers pay you more for it. Now this other stuff, I have a full chapter on it as well, and it just begins with saying, look, the argument in principle is sound, but we have to look empirically to see whether it's really true. You know, I have a big section where I just go over how much civics do American adults even know? And the answer is next to nothing. Next to nothing.

Gillespie: Yeah, I mean, you note that if people who were born here or were citizens had to pass the citizenship test of immigrants I think was something like 70 percent would fail.

Caplan: I'm glad you remember that. I don't. So what we can see is that like even the most basic stuff, like how many senators does each state have, maybe half of American adults know this. And this is not after a one-week course in civics. So, you know, like you say, well, American high school students on average will do three years of civics and history. So three years and yet what do we have to show for it? Next to nothing.

Gillespie: Well, we have football stadiums.

Caplan: Yes, we have football stadiums.

Gillespie: So talk about the signaling model. How does the signaling model work? You say partly it shows that you're willing to conform to certain basic norms that are going to make you appealing to employers, but there's more to it than that, right?

Caplan: Yeah. So I mean, there's a lot of different desirable traits that you are signaling with educational accomplishment. So there's the obvious ones. You're signaling that you're smart. Smart people do better in school. If you've done well in school, natural inference is the person's probably smart. Not necessarily, but generally. You're signaling work ethic because even the smartest person in the world can't do well in school if they don't show up and do a bit of work. And then finally, the most subtle one that I talk about a lot is conformity, signaling you're willing to submit to social norms. And the conformity one is where we really get things like the sheepskin effect. Because if we were just signaling intelligence and work ethic, there still isn't really a good story, well, why does the last year pay so much? Once you accept that a lot of it is about, yes, master, I will conform to what our society demands of me, that's where graduation is so important. That's why in a country where college lasts four years, it's the fourth year that's crucial. Just like in a country where suits are the standard thing you wear to an interview, you better wear a suit or else you look like a weirdo and people don't want to hire you.

Gillespie: Libertarianism is about individualism, but then is there a sliding scale of when you get too conformist, because then you're also not a good worker, right, in many ways? Like you're an economics professor. If you were simply doing what everybody else was doing, that would be a problem.

Caplan: A line that I quote in the book roughly is what employers want is intelligent conformism. They want people who apply their full intellectual power to the task that is given to them. Now sometimes there are creative occupations where they're told be creative on this task. Well, even there, almost no employer wants you to be so creative that you say, 'Hey, maybe this project isn't even worth doing, maybe I should be the boss.' So there's always that. And then again of course most jobs are not really very creative and there's a tendency in the information age to focus on the small share of jobs where we do want people shooting basketball while they shoot the breeze. But I mean, most jobs are not like that. Vast majority of jobs are not like that. It's about there's a customer. He wants a definite product, give him that product or else I don't want you around.

Gillespie: Talk about one of the ways that this system gets enforced is through social desirability bias.

Caplan: Ah, yes.

Gillespie: What is that and how does that inform the larger education network?

Caplan: Right. Social desirability bias is the concept in psychology that is barely known by either economists or libertarians and yet should be the single most cited concept in psychology, social desirability bias. You know, a simple version is people like to say what sounds good. They like to say things that will make people think that they are a kind and … A kind, respectful, and respectable person, right? So you can see this in things like what is the socially desirable answer to, 'Am I fat?' Of course the socially desirable answer is, 'I'm not fat.' Now of course some people aren't fat and then you just tell them the truth, but on the other hand, we know that if someone is in fact fat, our strong temptation is to say something that sounds good but isn't true. This is something where of course we see it in daily life, but also has clear political roles. You know, just think about any time a politician says, 'And we need to put more resources into education, health care, and the environment.' Now these are all things that sound good. And if you could imagine a politician saying, 'We have now done enough for education, and health care, and the environment. We know they're important, but enough is enough.' That's nothing that a politician would ever want to stick their neck out and say because it sounds bad. It sounds like you're not a caring person, you're not a respectable person. What I say is a lot of the support for education is social desirability bias in a sense that if we … The only thing that a good person would say is more and better, never less and worse.

Gillespie: There are obviously entrenched interests in a kind of education industry as well as it helps employers, right? Because employers, even if we're not learning the skills, they're going to train us on the job for whatever we need to do, but they benefit in a way, right, from the signaling process because it makes it … You at one point you say that employers can't look at every individual applicant closely, so they use these as rough sorts.

Caplan: Yeah, I mean, employers benefit from there being some signal. But I don't think employers benefit from the college degree being the signal of quality rather than the high school degree. So something where like in 1950 like about something like 25 percent of American adults would have finished high school at that point, and then an employer could say, "Well, they're a high school graduate. Great. Perfect. They're managerial material." Now it's a college degree. As to why employers benefit from pulling four years worth of labor off the job market, I don't think that they do actually.

Gillespie: Can we talk about that? What is the historical, the kind of material basis for this? You know, again, schools became at least up through sixth grade or eighth grade for most kids, sort of became mandatory in the early 19th century. By the end of the century it was everywhere. Is part of this, is part of the growth of education as being so important and central to our identity, is it simply we need to warehouse kids now that we don't need them to be chimney sweeps or to do like things, you know, kids have little hands. They can work on machines with little hands, things like that, or hawk newspapers. We don't need them to do that labor anymore. Are we just warehousing kids? Like what's the sociology or the genealogy of why we have so much education?

Caplan: Going 100 years back, there is this popular story that employers wanted kids trained to be cogs in the corporate machine. And I would say like if you really wanted to train cogs in your corporate machine, you would not design anything like the public school system we have. It would be like military school. You would whip kids into shape, get them to say, 'Yes, sir.' Give them a lot of propaganda about how great their corporate pay masters are. That's not the way that education looked 100 years ago, and it's certainly not the way that it looks today. This is not a system that really seems to be designed to prepare people to be useful employees. You'd never have the everyone's a beautiful unique snowflake kind of propaganda, the touchy-feeliness. That's not what employers want. Employers want someone that will follow orders, do what they're told, and accept criticism, which is of course crucial for learning. So I don't think that it really makes much sense to think of the current system as something that has been molded for the interest of corporate America. I mean, I think, you know, so if corporate America of course if they can tweak it a little bit in their favored direction they will, but it's …

Gillespie: But what else would we do with kids?

Caplan: Yeah, so there's kids and kids, right? Young kids, of course, they need to be warehoused. So give them day care. Well, even there, as to why kids can't go to school and then learn reading, writing, and math for a few hours and then get to play for the rest of the day within a supervised facility, I've got no clue about why you couldn't just do that rather than boring them to death and making them study stuff they don't care about. But even for older kids, like 13-year-olds, 14-year-olds, 15-year-olds, as to why they can't actually be out in the real world as apprentices. There are countries that do this. Germany and Switzerland do this. No reason why American kids could not do this as well, right? And say like they can't do anything. Sure they can do stuff. Say, well, we don't need them. Well, the economy's not based upon what we need. It's based upon what we got, right? What do we need? We need like a few bowls of rice a day. But what we've got, however, is enough to go and produce vastly more and like I don't see any reason why teenagers could not be part of the labor market at a much earlier age than they are right now, right? And, you know, of course if we're always worried that any kid who's working is being distracted from his much more important studies, this isn't going to fly. But if we realize these studies are not really that socially valuable anyway and it would be better to get kids in the labor force—especially, by the way, kids that are not very academically inclined anyway where they get shoved and prodded to go and succeed and go to college, which is almost certainly never going to happen for them. And by the time that they drop out, they're so bitter about the whole system that they are not suited for really any job. I've got a chapter in the book called One is Greater Than Zero. It's like it'd be better just to train people to do one job rather than zero, which is what a lot of kids leave high school or drop out of high school, are able to do.

Gillespie: So what is to be done? And you write in the concluding chapter of the book, 'Slash government subsidies. This won't make classes relevant, but will lead students to spend fewer years sitting in classrooms. Since they're not learning much of use, the overarching effect will not be de-skilling, but credential deflation.' Talk about that.

Caplan: Yeah, so credential inflation is what we've seen over the last century. The amount of education that you need to get one and the same job has increased dramatically. So basically since World War II it'd be about a four-year increase in the amount of education you need to get a job. This is why we see college graduates doing things like waiting tables, bartending, where we're driving taxis. These are not just ultra rare examples that make it onto the news. These are common jobs for college graduates to have these days, and it does seem like even in these jobs, a college degree does pay. It helps you get promoted and get a position in the better restaurants or the better bars. But the reason is there's so many people with these degrees that employers can afford to be picky and say, 'Well, fine. I want college graduates tending my fancy bar.' You know, like I say this is the function of the proliferation of credentials. And if education were more expensive and the subsidies were lower, fewer people would go.

Gillespie: Now when you're talking about subsidies here, I mean, you have 90 percent plus of K-12 spending is spent on public schools. There's so much federal money and state money going into colleges, as well even private colleges. You're saying cut that?

Caplan: Absolutely. So cut government spending. Cut the subsidies. This is the one of the most egregious cases of industrial policy that we see all over the world, and it's one that's almost totally uncontroversial even though if you go into a classroom and say, "Well, wait, why are we going and teaching these kids this stuff? They're going to forget it anyway, and it's not really relevant to what they're going to do in real life, so why?"

Gillespie: And to save you from a charge of philistinism, you're not saying in the book, 'Well, don't read novels, don't study art, don't study music.' You're simply saying that as part of the curriculum, most of what we learn other than basic mathematics and literacy, including English skills, is kind of useless.

Caplan: Yeah, so useless in the labor market. Now, so you said I'm a professor and I am a high culture kind of person and German upright, Shakespeare. This is the stuff that I like. But I still recognize that there's something twisted about ramming it down a kid's throat. A key part of appreciating this kind of stuff is coming to it in your own good time, actually being curious and ready. So like if you go and actually inspire a sincere affection for Shakespeare or opera, that's great. I see this happening almost never in school. The kids are there. They go and pay lip service to it, and then as soon as they're done, they walk away and say, 'Well, I never want to have to hear that garbage again. I hated that stuff.' This is where I say that while I'm not very optimistic about the potential of online education to really compete with brick and mortar schools, it's already doing a tremendous job in terms of quenching the human thirst for enlightenment. Right, and you need a course, and what's great about the Internet is that you don't have to concentrate all your fire power on kids that are between 15 and 22. You can wait around for adults to say, "I'm 30. Now I'm curious about Shakespeare. It seemed really boring when I was young, but now maybe I would like to go and learn something about it." So, you know, to say that while I'm all on board with the noble goals of enlightening the human spirit, a key part of this is you've got to have volunteers that want to learn. Just trying to ram this down the throat of conscripts, which is what education normally does, is an insult to everything that enlightenment stands for.

Gillespie: You know what? I'm hearing Pink Floyd's The Wall playing in the background.

Caplan: Yes, yes.

Gillespie: And this is the soundtrack of the book. Bryan Caplan's latest book The Case Against Education. He's a George Mason economics professor. Also you wrote a few years ago The Myth of the Rational Voter. I think this book is going to be just as controversial and hopefully as widely read. Bryan, thanks for talking to Reason.

Caplan: Alright, thanks so much. Always great talking to you, Nick.

Gillespie: For Reason, I'm Nick Gillespie.

NEXT: Aziz Ansari, Bad Sex, and the Dangers of 'Relying on Nonverbal Cues or Mind Reading'

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  1. if all we’re trying to do is prepare people for a job

    That’s one helluva big IF.

    1. What is the alternative?

      “if” the purpose of public education is, a la Horace Mann, to create “social efficiency, civic virtue, and character”… i think the argument remains that it fails so spectacularly on all accounts that its less-than-useless.

      1. Traditional approaches, like the priesthood (which used to be the only educated class) and later the electoral college and representative government all existed because the vast majority of people were uneducated and couldn’t be trusted to make big decisions.

        Do we really want to return to a time when no one learned the “boring” stuff like history, math, civics, etc? And Caplan actually makes a case for child labor? (Which is what happens if you ignore boring stuff like history.)

        Having a common level of education and some minimal amount of history and civics is the infrastructure of our society.

        1. Child labor is not necessarily such a bad thing. Jeffrey Tucker makes a good case for letting kids work instead of go to school.

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  2. “So the real question is if all we’re trying to do is prepare people for a job, why not prepare them with a job?”

    Because that’s not all schooling is for. The founders of American public education explicitly wanted to create a system to turn children into interchangeable cogs – informed enough to participate productively in democratic governance and an industrial economy, but without the rhetorical tools or any whiff of nonconformity that would enable them to question the Progressive society their betters were building. Has Caplan never read Gatto?

    1. What’s a waste, is government involvement in schooling. Schools should be separated from the state, just as religion is. Where government passes no laws respecting a school, nor prohibits the creation of schools or people getting an education. Otherwise, we’re back to arguing which religion (secular, religious, pro-government or not, which subjects, what extracurricular activities, etc.) is taught.

      As a libertarian, at most, I can support government funding of K-12 education, but not government run schools. And certainly government shouldn’t be involved in higher education.

      1. I have an issue with tax-funded religious schools. You can’t have schools separated from the state “just as religion is” if the state pays for religious schools or pays for schools with no accountability.

        If you want a return or a real peasant class, then sure, take state funding away from schools and leave the poor to grow up uneducated. If you’re going to make an argument for education only for those that can afford it, at least be honest and discuss the possible externalities that may result from such a system. How will a significantly large number of uneducated people impact crime rates? The cost of policing? Will we get shanty towns like we see in parts of Latin America, South America, and Africa? What sorts of disease rates might that create? Will it drag on the economy to have so many uneducated persons? etc.

        If we spend $1T on public education now, how much would we spend mitigating the externalities of having no public education system at all?

    2. As you point out, the real problem is the progressives. We need to get rid of them. I favor either dumping them all in Antarctica, or replacing them with fresh immigrants at a rate of one immigrant for every ten progressives. Also, the progressives can never, ever set foot in the USA again.

      1. America becomes less rural, less religious, less white, less backward, and less bigoted every day. This improvement in the American electorate seems destined to doom the stale, authoritarian, bigoted preferences of conservatives.

        Enjoy the future (while pining for good old days that never existed, of course), Elias. Or, if you can not abide a future that champions education over ignorance, tolerance over bigotry, science over silly dogma, inclusivity over insularity, reason over superstition, and progress over backwardness, I will understand if you conclude there is just no reason for you to keep going.

        1. OH, I don’t know judging by social media feeds less bigoted every day seems to be a false statement.

  3. “You know, your senior year is goof-off year”
    I almost stopped reading there. That might be true in lazy, soft fields like social science / economics, but in STEM fields it certainly isn’t true in any university I am aware of.

    1. Very true, especially if you’re working in the trades because often you’re doing a working interview to showcase your skills for teachers and employers who come to your school to meet you.

    2. Agreed. My senior, fourth year scholastically was the busiest of undergrad, not to mention the time devoted to job pursuits, and of course getting after it. If someone could bottle that energy and liver performance…I miss those 48-hour days.

    3. That might be true in lazy, soft fields like social science / economics, but in STEM fields it certainly isn’t true in any university I am aware of.

      If people treat economics that way, they’re going to get the barista job they deserve and will make the discipline look bad by bitching that they can’t find work.

      Don’t confuse the discipline with the people who tend to be attracted to it. Experimental psychology is one of the most conceptually difficult and mathematically rigorous disciplines you’ll find. But when every emo dipshit decides that’s going to be his major and he’s not going to do any work, the field gets a bad name because everyone is exposed to psychology majors and not exposed to psychology itself.

      1. Mostly I was picking on the professor and his field. Probably should have made a comment about his university.
        Clinical psychology is well known for attracting people with mental issues who want to find out why they have problems. Personally I would prefer cognitive psych.

    4. “I almost stopped reading there.”

      But the argument doesn’t depend on it. Senior year may not be a goof off year in most fields, but there’s no way that it’s vastly more difficult or valuable than junior year. If you believe the human capital model of education, a person who’s just a couple semesters short of a degree ought to be nearly as valuable in the job market as one with a degree. But they aren’t. Not even close.

      1. No it does not – but it does go to the competence of the author to make any sweeping claims. If he is making one obvious face-palm-ignorant statement in an area where I have a little expertise (and a college prof should have a lot), how many other mind-numbingly ignorant statements (where I don’t have enough knowledge to judge) is he basing his claims on?

        As to whether college is more valuable for the education or the piece of paper at the end, I am not going to argue either way. I do think companies place too much value on random credentials – note my comment about local biotech lab technicians.

      2. As a hiring manager, given two potential employees, one who completed their degree and one who did not, I’m going to hire the person who saw it through to the end and got the entire job done. (All other things being equal.)

        The person that didn’t finish their degree might be smart but I’m not just hiring smart people, I’m hiring for people who can last and won’t make me hire and rehire constantly. I’ve got other things to do with my time than deal with flakes.

        In some fields, especially STEMM, your senior year builds on your junior year. There are things you learn that expose you to bigger and broader ideas and approaches. Someone who finished the program was exposed to more information. There’s value there.

        But finally, would you be willing to let someone who dropped out of medical school operate on you? If they charge you 75% of the fee that an actual doctor charges? Probably not. Because the risk is too high. Will you hire an architect or engineer who dropped out? (The implications of not finishing school vary by field.)

      3. Why hasn’t the free market picked up on the fact that you can get someone almost as good as an actual graduate at a knock-down price? Oh yes, because someone dropping out of college is an indicator of reliability issues (whether it’s a drug problem, a family crisis, financial difficulties…). You *could* interview to get to the bottom of it but most employers already have a large crop of easier-to-assess candidates.

        Senior year is also when you’re most likely to be assessed on detailed independent work like a dissertation rather than multiple choice exams. This makes it a more useful thing to have course credit for. I’d rather hire someone whose grades at college started poor and got better, than someone who started good and declined thereafter.

  4. Back in my day we had apprenticeship programs – the local blacksmith or miller or baker or whatever would take you on as a helper for little-to-no pay in return for maybe feeding you and giving you a sack of straw to sleep on as he taught you his job. If you were worth a damn, he’d start paying you a little more as your productivity and value to him increased and after a few years you knew enough to call yourself a blacksmith or miller or baker or whatever. It was cheaper and easier than schooling you have to pay a shitload of money for and the job training tended to focus strictly on the job without the bullshit about gender theory and sensitivity training and the social construct of eyebrow plucking or whatever the hell it is they’re teaching the kids these days. There’s a concept for you – pay a kid minimum wage to sweep the floors and take out the trash and keep the shop tools organized and – oh, yeah – if you hang around here long enough, pay attention and ask questions, we’ll show you how to operate a CNC lathe.

    1. That is still true in many trades.

      There is actually a bit of a debate starting in my state around biotech lab jobs. The state invested a lot in specialized biology lab associate degrees in community colleges (and HS trade school majors) for lab workers. Biotech companies have started upping the requirements to “BS in biology”. The state is asking “WTH? a generic 4-year biology degree has less lab training than our 2-year degrees!”

      You are off a bit on the CNC lathe thing. Most new manufacturing plants have much more complex devices that require much longer specialized training. Some states are investing in vocational schools and community colleges to provide that training. But you are mostly right – it is not a 4-year college degree, more like a shop trades certificate.

    2. Back in my day we had apprenticeship programs – the local blacksmith or miller or baker or whatever would take you on as a helper for little-to-no pay in return for maybe feeding you and giving you a sack of straw to sleep on as he taught you his job. If you were worth a damn, he’d start paying you a little more as your productivity and value to him increased and after a few years you knew enough to call yourself a blacksmith or miller or baker or whatever.

      This is an excellent point. And it should be noted that this model EXISTS in some very niche areas of education. If you wanted to become a chemist, for example, and jumped through all the necessary bullshit hoops to get accepted into a PhD program, you’d then be accepted into a program that was modeled after apprenticeships. Years 2-5 of graduate school (or however long it takes a particular chemistry student to get a PhD — usually varies between 4 and 7 years) are an apprenticeship with most of the features you describe. Why can’t earlier levels of education be modeled in this way? THEY CAN. It’s called trade school, and there’s a stigma attached.

      Ironically, one of the few areas of undergraduate higher education that gets it right is clinical psychology, and many people who read Reason don’t have much respect for that discipline.

      1. If my ex girlfriend who went into that field is any example, I am fearful and distrustful of the sort of whackadoos that become clinical psychologists. A lot of them appear to be nutjobs themselves. That’ said, she was gorgeous, stacked, and fucked like a demon on a coke binge. Also probably because she was nuts.

  5. The primary purpose of the current schooling model of education is to create a particular socioeconomic hierarchy that would not exist in a free market. Corporations love this model because it’s a reliable (and more importantly, free) way to screen applicants without explicitly adopting discriminatory practices. Basically, it’s “ok” to reject a black guy because he doesn’t meet some arbitrary standard for a degree, whereas it’s “wrong” to reject a black guy because you’re not sold on his background or environment. The college degree is a surrogate for certain other qualities an employer might otherwise want to use to evaluate people they don’t know.

    The great irony is that some people (especially social democrats) think that the college degree promotes socioeconomic mobility, but the reality is that this system is perhaps the greatest obstacle to socioeconomic mobility. Promoting socioeconomic mobility necessarily requires removing obstacles that prevent people from gaining access to opportunities, and that means eliminating expensive degree requirements for licensure and funding opportunities (and other things).

    This is not a rant against a formal system of education. It’s a rant against allowing (and even promoting) discriminatory practices based on arbitrary standards, and the socioeconomic hierarchies that are the direct result.

    1. The content of college is irrelevant; what matters to employers is planning, long term thinking, goal orientation, work ethic, and postponement of gratification. All skills you need to complete college.

      If you don’t have those skills by sixth grade, you have a low probability of being a desirable employee and long term success. This is why poor middle schools rarely produce life time successes, even with the same curriculum. .

      1. American society has prolonged childhood and the schooling (facilitated by corporate) system is one of the main reasons for that. I agree that many of those important skills you list are acquired a hell of a lot earlier than age 22. We should be exposing kids to trades and useful disciplines much earlier in life. Maybe instead of teaching US History 6 or 7 times. Or forcing kids to read Jane Eyre.

        We need to do a better job of expanding educational innovation and not pigeonholing kids into certain schooling models based on their demographics. And we can’t let corporate America dictate their preferred screening processes into political programs, like the taxpayer-funded schooling system.

  6. Mr. Caplan paints with a broad brush, and obscures important details. There is education K12, and education tertiary. There is education in soft subjects, and education in science and engineering. If one is trying to solve an electrochemical problem involving certain nickel-iron alloys, it definitely helps to understand crystalline structures and chemistry.

    1. Even within the STEM fields, there is much waste and the need for a lifetime of self-study to keep up with the field. My biology degree required 30 credits of biology and 30 credits of math and other sciences. That leaves 60 credits of fluff in other departments to create a “well rounded” graduate. Why not have a 2 year biology degree and let students read books for leisure. I managed to be a top student in my Ecology and Evolution PhD program even though I had taken only 12 credits in that field as an undergraduate. I wanted to round out my biology knowledge. Most of my undergraduate classes were on the organismal to molecular level. The experience taught me that the average student can excel in a PhD program at a top university even if he his only preparation is a high school education. I ended up settling for a masters rather than finish a thesis, in part because I became disillusioned with academia.

      1. sharmota4zeb|1.22.18 @ 9:18PM|#
        “That leaves 60 credits of fluff in other departments to create a “well rounded” graduate.”

        I have wondered on this for awhile. My wife had to do a PE class in her college so she did horse riding. I was pretty confused why she had to pay to ride horses in college to earn a degree when she told me this.

        The only people who teach to teach people a desired skill with some consistency that I am aware of is the military. Need a linguist? You go to language school for a year and learn Chinese well enough to translate what you hear or read. What to learn it in the real world? Get ready to slog through four years of Chinese, if not more, at a much slower pace.

    2. What percent of people who’ve taken a university-level chemistry class A) remember more than a few fragments and B) actually use retained chemistry knowledge in their careers? I would guess a percentage in the low single digits. And the numbers would be worse for HS level sciences (I’d estimate less than 1% for the same questions)

      1. Along those lines, I think early education should focus primarily on three subjects: critical reading, oral communication, and mathematics. Everything else, including things that people think are important like chemistry and the “hard” sciences, should be used primarily to support those three language-based areas. Yes, you can get exposed to chemistry and computer programming, but it should be to support your mathematics training or your communication training. Reading Dickens is perfectly fine, but the underlying goal of critical reading should be the real motivation behind it. Word problems that expose kids to physics would be great, but the point should be to enable them to translate a problem into a mathematical solution, not necessarily to teach them about optics. Once they have the tools to readily understand and appreciate biology, chemistry, physics, (or philosophy, psychology, economics) should they begin to start learning the intricacies of these disciplines. Focus on too much and you end up watering everything down.

        Asking a psychologist to memorize the kreb cycle is fucking stupid.

  7. I think we should explicitly teach social skills along with reading and math during K-6 at least. It’s rare to find a job now that does not require teamwork. Even software engineers (a role once pictured as one person and a computer alone for 8 hours) have to work in big teams.

    1. Child psychologists are starting to attack the current “kids must read by 1st grade” mentality and similar trends. Much of our social skills we learn naturally as small children and in kindergarten by just interacting with other kids in play – and those skills get set and much harder to “teach” as we get older. By forcing small kids to be sit-at-desk classroom learners, it appears we are severely damaging many of them socially.

      Unfortunately the “stuff kids in classrooms for more days and longer hours is always better” mentality is in ascendance.

    2. None of those things really need to be “taught” on any kind of timeline, except, perhaps, to kids with intellectual or behavioral problems.

      Most kids, left alone, will learn how to read, do math, work in teams, and maintain friendships on their own time in their own ways. Sudbury Schools have been proving this for over 50 years.

      1. Sudbury schools! Yes! Thanks for mentioning them. They put all the pet theories of the control freaks to shame.

  8. In the award winning book “Janesville: an American Story” the author’s statistical studies showed that the GM auto plant employees laid off when the plant closed actually had better employment, wage, and emotional outcomes if they didn’t go back to school for retraining, then if they had.

    The results really surprised the sociologist, Dr. Amy Goldstein, who did the study; she said that she tried to normalize the result away, accounting for every conceivable variable — but it kept coming out the same. Folks who went back to school had WORSE long term outcomes.

    So much for the constant shouting about government needing to step in and spend money due to skills mismatch.

  9. The purpose of the educational system is to create a large number of government-dependent workers, to keep unemployed young people off the streets, and to indoctrinate youth into statism and collectivism. It achieves all those objectives very well.

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  11. The whole point of a University system is so warped from the original intent, it’s seems stupid to continue it without massive change.

    Most people need career skills, most of which can be gotten piecemeal, much of which can be learned online, often for free.

    We need private, competing, certification agencies for skill sets and we need companies to specify certifications on their position descriptions. Government could kick start the process (and do something useful for once) by rewriting all their position descriptions in terms of skill certifications rather than degrees.

    1. This is a very good idea that I have thought about myself a lot.

      There should be a lot more 6 month, 1 year, 2 year etc programs that teach you a very specific set of skills. Get certified, and you’re good to do XYZ job. It is sooooo much more efficient time/money wise.

      I never graduated college, despite being born with a brain that was designed for engineering, because I just went into business directly at a young age… But almost all my friends that have are every bit as illiterate and stupid as my friends who didn’t, other than the ones that studied something real like engineering, but even then they only really got anything out of it in that specific area. Which is to say that they spent a year or twos worth of time to learn some technical skills, and then wasted the rest of getting their bill for college jacked up on stuff they didn’t pay attention to or care about.

      And none of them actually ended up with any real smarts or knowledge of history or anything anyway, which is arguably the excuse for giving everyone a liberal education. I know far more than any other person I know about all of those things despite having only done a little bit of college level work.

      1. The problem with that is not schools, but companies.
        As I mentioned in another comment, our state is going through some frustration with biotech companies. The state did a lot of work adding certification programs and 2-year degrees for “lab tech” in voc schools and community colleges, with great success for years. But recently most companies have started randomly requiring (for no coherent reason anyone can find) a BS in biology (or chemistry) for those same lab tech jobs.

        You see that obsession with “more/higher credentials=better” in almost every industry.

        1. It’s sad but true. I really don’t get it. As a business owner you kind of want people who can do the job right, but have minimal expectations. People with 4 year degrees have inflated expectations because of how everybody views things now… So I don’t know why you’d prefer somebody with an inflated ego and inflated expectations about pay versus somebody who can do the job just as well, but doesn’t have that. It’s dumb.

          Things seem to be swinging the other way in a lot of peoples heads the last few years. All the “college is a waste of time” talk, combined with the sheer expense of it, and so on will probably cause blowback. Not to mention it’s only been in certain industries in the first place. No company I’ve ever heard of has demanded 4 year degrees to start as a welder for instance, maybe just a cert from a vocational school, or often not even that if you’re willing to start out at lower pay. But I guess we’ll see…

    2. Certification is a neat idea, but it won’t fix the problem. Once companies start over-relying on it, and even requiring it for certain positions, then certification companies who offer certification will start to charge more, and we’re back to square one. Government will then step in to provide “certification aid” for those who can’t afford to attend a certification program, which will in turn further increase the cost of certification (because that’s what government aid ALWAYS does). All of the problems with degrees will simply be transferred to certification.

      It fundamentally comes down to companies relying on others to do their applicant screening for them. Part of the problem is that companies are huge, and so the applicant pool is huge, so it’s a good way to narrow down the pool and make the hiring process cheap and efficient. They are essentially outsourcing the hiring process to universities (or certifiers, as you suggest) to do the initial screening, and the government is picking up the tab.

      The problem is always going to persist as long as three things are true: 1) government funds training programs (degrees/certs); 2) corporations are huge, centralized, and hierarchical; 3) demographics are correlated with degrees/certifications.

      1. Even still, paying for 2 years of technical training versus 4 years with half of it being fluff will almost certainly not end up surpassing the cost of 4 years no matter how out of whack it gets. But I agree with your premise.

      2. As long as their are no imposed limits on certification agencies other than maintaining a good reputation, there isn’t really a limit on them and their certifications will be priced as a commodity.

        I use Tripadvisor as my gold standard for determining what motels to stay in (coupled with the motel web sites rate page). The day Tripadvisor starts charging me or they start failing me, is the day I jump ship and go somewhere else.

        1. As long as their are no imposed limits on certification agencies other than maintaining a good reputation, there isn’t really a limit on them and their certifications will be priced as a commodity.

          You could say the same thing about degrees. You can’t just change the name of something and expect everything else to change.

          1. State run universities are not the same as private sector certification agencies.

            Educating and certifying by awarding a degree is a wholly different animal than simply certifying.

            Four (or more) years is not the same as 3 months.

            I don’t think there is much that is similar between the two models, but perhaps that’s just because I’m not reductionist enough.

  12. We really should go to a system more like Germany. The fact is some guy with a 90 IQ is not cut out to study to be a rocket scientist or a doctor, and trying to force him down that route is just going to make him lose interest. If we took people like that and encouraged them to do vocational education they’re actually capable of, like being a mechanic or welder etc, it would work soooooo much better. It seems to be doing Germany just fine. As it stands now those kind of people usually just drop out, don’t even learn a useful trade, and bounce around shit jobs until the might maybe stumble onto a decent vocation out of dumb luck. Getting them to think about that when they’re 16 instead of 30 would not hurt things.

    1. I guess I agree in general, but I think you have a very 1970s view of vocational education, both US and Germany.
      These aren’t all sub-90-IQ kids.
      Something like a quarter of senior management in German companies come through their apprentice system rather than the university system. Unlike the US, there is much less stigma in not going to college, which is part of why it works well there.
      In the US, at least in the vocational high schools around here, they have the old trade shops (carpentry, plumbing, auto, HVAC, etc.) plus things like cosmetology. But these days they also have fields like biotech, IT, graphic design, culinary & restaurant management, and medical. For example in medical, you graduate with a paramedic or CNA certification; many kids go on to nursing college and sometimes premed.
      And you decide to go when you are 14 (going into HS). Well, at least in the state I live in. I suppose some states still have 3rd world education systems.

      1. Yeah, I can see where you got that just from what I wrote. There’s obviously a lot more variety in the general idea than just “Go be a mechanic kid, cuz you ain’t too bright.” But I imagine we can both agree less bright people are probably the ones hurt THE MOST by the current system. Smarter people can and should do the higher level technical training in lieu of 4 year degrees when they feel so inclined as well. One of my best friends in HS, who was very bright, was thinking about going into IT because he was good with computers… But he had hardcore ADD and figured out on his own that he would go insane being in an office all the time. He went into construction instead, and rapidly climbed the ranks. He makes bank running construction sites now.

        Know thy self is important in these things, the thing is counselors at schools nowadays try to tell people like him, or the less bright folks, that it’s 4 year degree or bust! Any way you slice it that’s a bad way to go.

        1. Yes, great points.
          Note, I knew very little about vocations HS until about 15 years ago when I got involved in local government (municipal finance commission). They made me a big supporter. Our local voc school even likes to point out that more than 50% of their students go on to college – but many are getting things like a 2-year accounting degree to help run the business they already started before graduating HS, rather than a 4-year degree in basket weaving like many graduates from the regular “college prep” HS.

          1. Err, I meant “vocational HS” in that first sentence.

          2. Yeah, it all just makes a ton of sense from many different angles. Unfortunately most people just don’t care about a lot of things in life that snooty people do, and they never will. There’s nothing wrong with not brow beating them for that choice. But they do need to be economically productive to keep the world humming.

            Even many smart people don’t have interest, but can go on to be highly productive members of society. I personally think the “everybody has to go to college thing” is largely promoted just because statists want an extra 4 years to brain wash people… It sounds crazy, but many have said as much in their writing over the years.

        2. But I imagine we can both agree less bright people are probably the ones hurt THE MOST by the current system.

          Not bright AND poor. The combination is quite damning and the correlation between those qualities is high.

          This is why socioeconomic mobility is so incredibly important, and why the system we have in place (thanks to expensive degrees & schooling, licensure, insurance, and other mandates) has created a caste system that is so much at odds with it. As much as social democrats try to advocate for people from disadvantaged backgrounds, they totally miss the point when they suggest more central planning that serves only to erect other obstacles or to keep those obstacles intact. They say, “we need to invest in education!” while implying that the only avenue to wealth is through their preferred system of education.

          1. Agree on all points.

            Yes, everybody needs to be exposed to Russian Lit and Gender Theory in order to be economically productive and lead a happy life! I wonder if my friend from high school who makes almost 200K a year operating a crane knows that he’s not supposed to be financially well off and happy since he didn’t go to college? Some leftist professor better send him an email to make sure he knows he’s supposed to be broke and miserable so he can adjust his life accordingly!

  13. And if he hadn’t gotten many years of education and advanced degrees no one would pay the least bit of attention to him, much less pay him for his opinion. I could have written a similar article but no one would have paid me in order to publish it.

    Pretty funny this article. A college education is sort of a vetting process at a minimum showing that an individual is capable of performing cognitive tasks at some level and is capable of working with others.

    To verify that, absent a degree, is much harder and uncertain.

    1. Sure. But it has gone too far. Requiring degrees for stuff that you didn’t even need a high school education for 30 years ago… It just doesn’t make sense. I don’t think anybody is saying accountants shouldn’t have degrees in accounting, but requiring 4 year degrees to be a bartender at a semi nice bar? That’s a bit silly. I get the idea behind it, high end clientele might appreciate a smarter bartender to talk to, but it’s still a bit much IMO.

  14. “The Case Against Education”? Come on, Bryan, you should know better than this. That title is perfect for government education apologists to accuse people like you and me of being “against education”, even though *we* know we’re not. Why give them easy propagandistic targets?

  15. The dividing lines are clear:

    Education vs. ignorance.

    Tolerance vs. bigotry.

    Reason vs. superstition.

    Inclusivity vs. insularity.

    Science vs. dogma.

    Progress vs. backwardness.

    I know which side I am on. I know which side I expect to continue to prevail in America.

    (We also be able gauge this guy’s convictions when we observe whether his children attend a strong liberal-libertarian college or university; attend a backwater religious school; or refrain from attending a school after . . . well, after a homeschooling period, right? Or, we could check his educational trajectory, and his current choice of employer.)

    1. Ugh. How much education is enough to be “Education” versus “Ignorance?” 13 years (high school graduate)? Apparently not. 17 for a 4 year degree? 21 for maybe a doctorate? More? How about 50 years of formal schooling?

      Most people continue to learn things about things that interest them after graduating from school. Formal, super expensive schooling, is only needed to a point that varies by person. A lot of people I knew in school lost interest in ANYTHING being taught by 10th grade. They usually weren’t the brightest, but many of them are actually doing quite fine nowadays in various trades, married with kids, and have happy lives.

      They also learned plenty about things THEY ARE INTERESTED IN after school. Some learned how to work on cars for fun, or took up carpentry as a hobby, another is obsessed with volcanoes. People are different… Not everybody is going to be some academic who spends their whole life in formal education settings. I never took classes in college on many subjects I now know a TON about. I actually know more about some of these subjects than people I have met who graduated with college degrees in the same subjects!

      Formal schooling DOES NOT equal education. Especially not in modern America where the system is dysfunctional as fuck.

  16. Ugh. Horrible stuff. Stop looking at children as solely an economic commodity. Schooling (when done well) teaches so much about finding your true self. I may sound like an old hippy here, but the social skills and learning about who you really are through experimenting are vital to a child’s growth. None of this is measured in numbers. An economist such as Caplan would probably look at most art as a waste of time and money, but our society is so much improved in ways that are not just about economic gain.

    1. But how does being forced to take classes you have no interest in help any of that? I’m all for people learning about non economically useful things, and in a formal setting if they choose… But the way it works now is BS. Forcing an engineering major to take bullshit electives he has no interest in to fill out a calendar is not achieving economic goals OR self enrichment. I elected to take history classes over art classes in high school because I LOVE history. But the school forced me to take art classes as well! How fucking stupid is that? I didn’t want to learn how to paint, I wanted to take Asia And The Middle East History instead, but I had to learn how to oil paint because that somehow makes me a better person? Puh-leeeeeze.

      Not to mention using taxpayer money to subsidize, and then force people to take classes they have no interest in. That’s doubly bullshit. If somebody can pay their own way to studying Art History because their parents are loaded, fine, but taxpayers footing the bill for (at this point) literally millions of useless degrees is pretty fucking dumb.

      1. The argument has always been that gen ed requirements promote breadth of education. But this assumes two things:

        1) That students care about the courses they take. And if they don’t, it doesn’t matter because they’ll still learn the material. As a college educator, I can tell you with certainty that this is not true. It is a waste of time to teach someone something that they don’t care anything about.
        2) That the only way to achieve breadth is through the classroom.

        College should be about offering opportunities, not creating mandates that conform to some administrator’s view of what education should look like. I encourage all my students to create custom majors, to engage in research activities with a faculty advisor, and to study abroad. I offer independent study like it’s going out of style. There are ways to get kids OUT of the classroom, and parents should be encouraging this at the earliest of levels.

        1. Agree. I think everybody should have certain basic stuff taught to them to a point even if not interested. Things like history, civics, etc. But that point is probably somewhere in high school. Forcing art classes on engineering majors in college is certainly taking the idea too far.

  17. So school should only good enough for preparing to be a wage drone have the money to buy lost of crap you don’t need?

  18. I don’t know about public education more generally, but Caplan makes a compelling case that anyone spending money to go to GMU isn’t getting their money’s worth.

  19. Really, if the only point of public school is to teach kids how to show up and listen to what they’re told, why don’t we just put them all in prison or slave camps? I can’t think of a better way to crush the wage-earner’s soul than to teach them that anything other than working for a wage is pointless.

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