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Bryan Caplan's Case Against Education

A new book raises fundamental questions about the value of education spending.

In his important new book The Case Against Education, economist Bryan Caplan argues that a high proportion of our massive spending on education is a waste of time and money. Since government spending on education amounts to some $1 trillion per year, this suggests we are gravely misallocating resources that could be better used elsewhere.

I. Caplan's Theory of Wasteful Educational Signaling.

Caplan doesn't deny the extensive evidence indicating that education increases income. High school graduates earn far more than dropouts, and college graduates far more than high school graduates, for example. Caplan contends that most of this income gain (perhaps as much as 80 percent) is not the result of improved skills (investments in human capital, in economic terminology), but rather "signaling." The big reason why employers prefer college graduates is not any skill those people acquired in college, but rather that getting a diploma is a signal of intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity - characteristics that are valuable in most jobs.

Caplan provides a great deal of data and other evidence supporting his position. One of the more compelling is the "sheepskin effect": income gains from getting a diploma are far larger than those from earlier years of education that do not result in a diploma. If increases in human capital from learning course material were the main reason why education leads to higher higher income, the piece of paper you get at the end would not matter so much. Another notable line of evidence is the extensive data indicating that most students forget a high percentage of what they learn soon after the end of the class in question. Students generally cannot make use of knowledge acquired through education if they don't even remember it. From a signaling point of view, however, passing a course is still a useful indicator of intelligence and conscientiousness, even if the student promptly forgets what she learned, soon after the final exam. Caplan concedes that education in basic "reading, writing, and 'rithmetic" has a big payoff, and that the same is true for some types of vocational and professional education. But he concludes that signaling accounts for the lion's share of income gains from most other education.

If "signaling," not human capital, is the main explanation for the correlation between education and income, then much education spending turns out be a wasteful arms race. A high school diploma was an effective signal of worker quality in an era when many people did not have one. When almost everyone has a diploma, it is no longer enough to stand out from the crowd. Effective signalling now requires a college degree. As more and more people become college graduates, you now often have to have a graduate degree to stand out. And so on. Caplan argues that we might all be better off if we cut education expenditures, thereby curtailing the resources devoted to the arms race.

Caplan's analysis of the data is far from indisputable. For a good discussion of the issues, see this debate between Caplan and leading education economist Eric Hanushek. But even if you don't put as much stock in signaling theory as Caplan, he does compile a lot of evidence indicating that much education spending is wasteful, and particularly that it has very poor returns for weak students and many of the poor (two groups with a large overlap). Hanushek's own previous work suggests that increased education expenditures usually do little or nothing to improve educational outcomes. This bolsters the case for Caplan's argument that we can radically cut education spending, without losing much of value.

II. Does Education Make Us Better Citizens?

While much of the commentary on Caplan's book focuses on his analysis of the narrowly "economic" utility of education, he also has a section analyzing claims that education increases political knowledge. Historically, one of the most important defenses of public education spending is that it is necessary to make us better-informed voters. Even such libertarians as Milton Friedman argued that this justifies government subsidization of education (though Friedman argued it should take the form of vouchers rather than traditional public schools). Unfortunately, as Caplan documents, there is little evidence that the education system actually performs this role at all well. Over the last 75 years, educational attainment has greatly increased, with the average American adult today now having several years more formal education than that of 1960. Yet political knowledge levels have stagnated at roughly the same low level. As the 2016 election dramatically confirmed, widespread political ignorance remains a very serious problem, and massive increases in education spending over the last several decades have done little or nothing to alleviate it.

It's easy to say that the problem is simply that schools are teaching the wrong things. If we could only revamp the curriculum properly, maybe they could do a far better job of preparing students to be good voters. But incentivizing real-world politicians, school administrators, and teachers to improve civic education is a much tougher proposition than it may seem. The failure of several decades of efforts along those lines is one of several indications of that. Among other things, it is unlikely that incumbent politicians - who owe their election to largely ignorant voters - will want to alleviate the very ignorance that helped them get into power in the first place. There are also several other major obstacles to increasing political knowledge through education, which I discuss in more detail in my book Democracy and Political Ignorance.

What is true for increasing political knowledge is also largely true for the pursuit of educational enlightenment for its own sake. Many people argue that learning about and appreciating high culture is intrinsically valuable, regardless of its effect on your future job prospects. Caplan agrees. But, as he documents, the current education system provides such enlightenment to only a very small fraction of students.

As in the case of political knowledge, many people's immediate reaction to evidence that the education system provides little intrinsically valuable enlightenment is to say we should reform the system rather than cut spending. But improvement is extremely difficult, given the many perverse incentives in the system. And, as Caplan emphasizes, cutting wasteful spending is desirable even if you do not have an immediately viable way to achieve the same goal. Imagine you have been taking medicine to cure a skin rash. New scientific evidence proves that the remedy you have been using is actually snake oil that does nothing to cure the rash. In that event, the rational thing to do is stop buying snake oil - even if you don't have an alternative treatment that actually works. The resources wasted on snake oil can still be better used on other things, even if they are purposes unrelated to curing the rash. The same point applies to wasteful education expenditures that result in little or no useful learning. There is much to be gained from cutting them, and using the resources for more valuable purposes. Some of those other purposes may themselves be education-related, but others will not.

Caplan does, however, find two interesting political and social effects of education that may cut against his thesis. Controlling for many other variables, increased education makes people more economically conservative and more socially liberal - in other words, more libertarian. This should lead populists, especially those who are also social conservatives, to take a more negative view of education. But it should have the opposite effecton libertarians and other free market advocates, including Caplan himself. In addition (again, controlling for other variables) education increases marriage rates. Marriage is not the best option for everyone. But many studies suggest it increases happiness and correlates with a variety of beneficial social outcomes. Increased libertarianism and higher marriage rates do not prove that all of our gargantuan education spending is justified. But Caplan should give these effects greater weight than he does.

III. Why Caplan Overstates the Role of Educational Signaling.

My biggest reservation about Caplan's theory, however, has to do with the core of his analysis of signaling: ironically, for a libertarian economist, the theory relies on the notion that the employment market suffers from a gigantic market failure. Sending the "right" signals to employers turns out to be very costly if the only way to do it is to spend many additional years in the educational system during which you learn very little of actual value. Both employers and workers could get a huge payoff if they could figure out a cheaper signaling mechanism. Employers would have access to a valuable new pool of labor. Workers would be able to start their careers earlier, make more money, and carry less college debt.

As Caplan recognizes, most of the putative problem here cannot be explained by inefficient government subsidies to education. Although those subsidies reduce the cost to students and employers, the remaining costs borne by the students are still huge. Even those students who get completely subsidized tuition are rarely compensated for the foregone wages, time, and effort they lose during the additional years of education they take on largely for signaling reasons.

There is no inherent contradiction between being a libertarian (or even a libertarian economist) and recognizing the existence of market failure. Few serious scholars of any ideology believe that markets always function perfectly. But the theory at the heart of Caplan's argument posits a truly enormous market failure. And the logic behind it is not as compelling as it may seem.

Consider the three main traits Caplan believes education enables workers to signal to employers: intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity. As Caplan recognizes, it isn't actually that hard to signal intelligence. For example, employees could submit standardized test scores to employers (which have a high correlation with employment). They could even take just one or two intellectually demanding courses and present evidence that they scored high on the final exam. It certainly does not require four years of college to prove your intelligence. Even if laws or regulations prevent employers from requiring applicants to submit test scores, nothing prevents the latter from submitting them of their own initiative.

Conscientiousness also is not that costly to signal. If you work at a demanding blue collar or service job for a few months, and get good reviews from your supervisor for customer service, showing up on time, and the like, that is pretty strong evidence of conscientiousness. Indeed, it might well be better evidence than getting a college diploma. Conscientiousness is better signaled by good work at boring and unpleasant tasks than at relatively interesting ones. If you do the latter well, it could just be because you enjoyed them, not because you are conscientious. At most four year colleges, students have considerable choice as to which courses to take, and can usually avoid those they especially dislike. By contrast, unpleasant drudgery is a major part of many service jobs. A year of good performance at McDonald's is probably a better signal of conscientiousness than a year of passing courses at most colleges. And, unlike college, McDonald's does not charge tuition and pays you a salary (even if a small one).

Even if, for some reason, people are averse to proving their conscientiousness by working at low-wage jobs, they could do so by taking one or two demanding courses and doing well on the final exam. Indeed, one can even imagine entrepreneurs developing and selling "conscientiousness certification" courses (a real entrepreneur would come up with a catchier name!) that fill this market niche. Such classes could be much cheaper and less time-consuming than college.

Caplan's response to arguments like this is to double down on the importance of conformity. Indeed, it turns out that conformity ends up doing the lion's share of the work in his signaling theory. People who find unconventional ways to signal intelligence or conscientiousness prove themselves to be nonconformists, almost by definition. And most employers don't want workers like that.

A certain degree of conformity is indeed important in most jobs. But it does not follow that employers want workers who are conformist across the board. Rather, as a general rule, they want people who are conformist in the sense of following instructions and "fitting in" with the other people at the firm. Across-the-board conformism that goes beyond this is as likely to be a detriment as an asset, particularly in jobs that require a degree of initiative or original thinking. If people say you are a conformist, it usually isn't a compliment!

As with intelligence and conscientiousness, there are likely to be cheaper ways to signal the types of conformity that are actually desired by employers than spending years on unnecessary formal education. Working at a relatively unpleasant job for a few months and getting good reviews from superiors can be a powerful signal of that kind of conformity.

When I was in middle school and high school, I did a lot of babysitting and lawn work. My generally effective performance of these jobs was a much better signal of conscientiousness and conformity than anything I did in college. Indeed, what could be a better signal of conscientiousness than the fact that people were willing to entrust their children to me?

The existence of relatively cheap ways to signal the traits that Caplan emphasizes weakens the claim that income gains from education are overwhelmingly due to signaling. It is difficult to believe that people devote such vast resources to a signaling method when there are far less costly and time-consuming ways to achieve the same result.

None of this proves that educational signaling is not an important phenomenon. Far from it. But it does suggest it may not be as omnipresent as Caplan argues. It may well be that human capital gains account for a significantly higher percentage of the income benefits of education than his analysis concludes. One possible mechanism by which it does so could be improvements in general cognitive skills, of the sort emphasized by Eric Hanushek in his debate with Caplan. At the same time, however, Caplan's book still provides powerful evidence that the education system wastes enormous amounts of money and that the payoff from it - especially for the poor and relatively weak students - is often unconscionably low. That should trouble even those readers who are not willing to endorse the more radical aspects of Caplan's thesis.

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  • Soronel Haetir||

    The thing I believe a degree signals is the ability to stick with something moderately difficult (similar to but not quite the same thing as conscientiousness)your babysitting work doesn't even come close on that score. Babysitting is basically a few hours of experience repeated many times, university work should hopefully be at least somewhat more varied.

  • MightyMouse||

    What you've decribed sounds like the important attribute of Grit, by Angela Lee Duckworth

  • Lee Moore||

    "Grit" is not statistically distinguishable from trait "conscientiousness."

    In other words it's the same thing, with a new marketing shtick.

  • MightyMouse||

    ...and if the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak?

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    @MightyMouse,

    Then you get drunk.

  • MightyMouse||

    Conscientious doesn't indicate a type of person who pursues long term goals. Employers usually want ambitious employees who have a track record of challenging themselves.

  • Joe_JP||

    What about True Grit?

  • MightyMouse||

    Thanks for that correction.

  • Smooth Like a Rhapsody||

    "I'm looking for a man with grit; I hear he has grit."

  • Abogado7||

    Other benefits of higher education are the attractive lifestyle (plenty of leisure time, long vacations, use of recreational facilities, etc.), abundant opportunities to meet potential sexual partners, and the psychological and networking advantages of tribal membership. What's not to like? It beats working. Doesn't mean the government should subsidize it, though.

  • Lee Moore||

    Sure, but you can have all that without having to shell out for lecturers and admin staff.

    To be fair to the college system, I learned some intellectually challenging stuff at college that proved very useful later on. But an honest audit would reveal that I could have picked up all that useful stuff in a single hard working semester, if I hadn't been majoring in Attractive Lifestyle.

  • Jerry B.||

    But one idea now is to make college cost-free to the student, so they don't have to worry about shelling out for teachers, etc. You do.

  • PubliusVA||

    Yes, but without the lecturers and admin staff, how do you justify it to parents?

  • Sarcastr0||

    What about the studies about prison education and recidivism? Education sure seems to do something to make people better citizens.

  • DjDiverDan||

    What makes you think that the exact same mechanism of signalling doesn't work with respect to education in prison? If you are a prospective employer given a choice between two ex-cons, one of which spent his time in prison earning his GED and then perhaps an Associates Degree, while the other, already having adequate reading skills and numeracy, spent his time terrorizing other prisoners in the yard (or even doing nothing), which are you likely to choose? The fact that the first prisoner spent his time getting educational credentials doesn't necessarily mean that he learned anything, but it certainly signals something about his character - a dedication to bettering himself. And the improvement in his ability to get a job and earn an honest living after prison will certainly impact his propensity to re-offend. That's not to say that educating prisoners is a wasted investment, but we ought to at least be honest about just what it achieves.

  • Jerry B.||

    Scanning the studies, it's pretty much "prisoners who took courses in prison had less recidivism".

    Could it be that prisoners willing to take courses are already less likely to re-offend, rather than that taking the courses causes prisoners to be less likely to re-offend?

  • Bruce Hayden||

    I think that that does make sense. There are those who swear, being imprisoned "never again". Know one of them, and their parole officer was surprised, and quit drug testing and meeting with them a year early. No recidivism. Others are just passing time till they get out. For them, why bother with more education? Mostly won't help them when they get reincarcerated.

  • bernard11||

    All these things "could be." They could also not be. Other things could be, also.

    Unsupported assertions are not particularly convincing.

    Besides, let's say that we know that prisoners who successfully take classes in prison do in fact fare much better once released than those who don't, but we don't actually know what the reason is.

    What policy does that suggest?

  • cmcc_aus||

    A college degree, in a selected major, provides one with an attitude, an approach to knowledge, and a way of understanding the problems one faces. A degree in the natural sciences provides one approach to knowledge, concentrating on formation and testing of hypotheses. A degree in engineering trains one in methodical and repeatable approaches to tasks. A degree in business... My degree in the social sciences lead me to understand the world in terms of human behaviors. And so forth. And in any of these areas, or any other field I haven't named, that systematic approach and attitude may be more important and job-useful than any specific knowledge the student has acquired in a specific field such as accounting, anthropology or zoology, which in many cases we don't directly apply in our jobs. But could we have gotten to where the scientific methods are ingrained in us, without having learned them in a specific field of study over the number of years invested?

    I'm suggesting that there's something more to it than intelligence, conscientiousness and conformity, and it's a little deeper than whatever the high school graduate had in the old days when the HS diploma was the norm. But it's hard to define exactly what this is, or to quantify how much is useful.

  • MightyMouse||

    Agreed.

    Physicists need some understanding of the human cultural history if they are to convince lay people climate change is real, GMOs are safe, and vaccines work. People are enlighten from where they stand, not by dragging them into the light.

    Cultural historians need to understand scientific reasoning. It is ok to view the world as true and untrue facts (as evidenced by the true and untrue answers in the exam). It's ok to subject culture to the critiques of reason and logic.

    In the world of work, there are people and things. It's best to value both.

  • Careless||

    Saying they "need to" doesn't mean they do, so your post is completely irrelevant to this subject, which is about whether or not it actually happens

  • Careless||

    A non-trivial portion of degrees are actively harmful in that respect

  • NToJ||

    "A college degree, in a selected major, provides one with an attitude..."

    This sounds similar to the "law school makes you think like a lawyer". Is there any data that supports the hypothesis? How would you go about testing "approach to knowledge" or propensity for "methodical and repeatable approaches to tasks"? If I were to compare your expertise in understanding "the world in terms of human behaviors" versus someone without a degree, how would I determine your superiority?

  • Bruce Hayden||

    I do see the "thinking like a lawyer" for those who have survived LS, though that is just a start. Cousin passed the bar but never practiced, and she shifts into thinking like a lawyer whenever the rest of the LS grads in the family get together. And, have seen similar with geologists and engineers, and esp mechanical engineers in that category, seemingly always willing to discuss how things work. Even MBAs, where we talk target marketing and discount rates.

  • NToJ||

    I'm not sure how rigorous a study of your cousin is to determine whether law school is sufficient or necessary to teach people to "think like a lawyer". But for anecdotal counterpoints, re: necessary see Abraham Lincoln and Clarence Darrow, re: sufficiency see Roy Cohn.

  • MightyMouse||

    "Conscientiousness also is not that costly to signal. If you work at a demanding blue collar or service job for a few months, and get good reviews from your supervisor for customer service, showing up on time, and the like, that is pretty strong evidence of conscientiousness."

    There's a lot of truth to that. For example, a company might hire exceptionally qualified people into a customer service job, in which they handle 100s if calls a day. To be successful, the employee needs to enjoy helping customers of all backgrounds and dispositions, and with a tireless amount of empathy. In a year or two of good reviews and production, they can snag other job opportunities which more fully employ their talent. The workplace then becomes full of nice, helpful, and smart people. That type of group, in my opinion, scales very well.

    On the other hand, ive hear from a cousin, he decides if he will hire between the time they enter the room to the time they sit in the chair.

  • Lee Moore||

    I did a bit of hiring in my time, of college graduates both straight out of school and up to age 30 or so, and I'm sorry to say that your cousin's experience mirrors my own. I must have hired about 60 people over two or three years and I was delighted with the way 59 out of 60 turned out. I had a rule that I would only hire people who, pretty early in the interview, I thought "Great ! I really like the look of him / her." Anyone I had doubts about I turned down. Except one. I thought - she's had some disadvantages, I've got my doubts, but it would be fairer to her to suppress them and give her a chance. She turned out to be one problem after another.

    Of course, I might have been turning down all sorts of good people just because they triggered my doubts. But since my department seemed to have a very low duffer rate compared to other departments, I don't think so. So I developed an unkind prejudice - early doubts are probably justified.

  • MightyMouse||

    If these people are working for you, it would only make sense you would hire the people you like personally, hence the "Facebook background check".

  • Lee Moore||

    I didn't mean "like = felt immediate warm personal feelings towards and looked forward to building a deep and meaningful personal relationship"

    I meant "like = that looks like a pretty impressive screwdriver, that will prove useful to me."

  • dew||

    "Caplan doesn't deny the extensive evidence indicating that education increases income."

    I will. Almost all of the papers/articles/claims I see in this area are based on a simple-minded flaw of tossing of "all HS-only graduates" and "all undergrad college graduates" into those two boxes.

    Only an undergraduate degree in social services usually means either a very low-level, low-pay government job or learning to say "would you like fries with that?" (you need a PhD to get anywhere $$$ in that field). A vocational HS diploma in plumbing (usually comes with a pipe-fitter license and at least an apprentice plumber license, and maybe even a journeyman plumber license) can be worth more in income than a lot of graduate degrees.

    At the very least, these income comparisons should separate HS into vocational HS and "regular" HS, and even more important separate college into schools - a loan-fueled undergraduate degree in engineering is probably a great investment, even at a lower quality higher-cost private college - but an undergraduate-only degree in political science or art history is a dangerously questionable investment if paid for by student loans, even from a top college.

  • DjDiverDan||

    Amen. And, I would add, a BA degree in some of the victim-group majors - Black Studies, Womens Studies, Gender Studies, what have you - are basically worthless. Those students financing those educations on student loans almost certainly would have been better off taking a fast food job immediately after high school and working their way into manager positions.

  • DavidTaylor||

    Well, within my lifetime, economists argued that a principle function of college was to keep people out of the job market, at least for several years, so from that point of view it would not matter whether they majored in theoretical physics or Some Identity-or-Other Studies. The problem now seems to be that kids are kept out of the job market at a very high price.

  • Bruce Hayden||

    To maybe expand a bit - to be accurate, such studies would first have to control for IQ, because that correlates with both income and college graduation rates, and without controlling for that, you really can't determine the extent that increased income is a function of IQ, and the extent that it is a function of college graduation. I.e. otherwise, higher income may possibly be merely a case of correlation, and not causation.

  • Lee Moore||

    In theory you could counteract most of the market failure problem caused by subsidies by subcontracting to employers, who would finance their apprentices' college education, in courses they approved of, with loans to be gradually waived from the apprentices' future labor. Even if you subsidised things by making the waivers tax free or tax advantaged, employers would still have an incentive to identify intelligent and conscientious students and useful courses.

    In practice this would be very vulnerable to political shakedowns from Al, Jesse and friends, so Morgan Stanley would find itself sponsoring intellectual no hopers in Elementary Arson or Critical Poststructuralism, as ransom payments.

  • NToJ||

    "...by subcontracting to employers, who would finance their apprentices' college education..."

    Why would employers accept this?

  • Lee Moore||

    They would accept it to the extent that they thought they were going to profit by it. Which might well be to a smaller extent than currently obtains.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    "Students generally cannot make use of knowledge acquired through education if they don't even remember it."

    One of my profs in (engineering) college told me: "We don't expect you to remember this. We expect you to remember that it exists, and where to look it up when you need it."

  • Schu||

    He's absolutely right. I don't use fluids or heat transfer on a daily basis but I can recognize the problem and know which formulas to look up etc. when i do.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    And, of course, having learned it once already, you'll pick it back up very quickly.

  • MightyMouse||

    ... if this were not true I would not have a job or be able to do anything useful.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    I suspect that is not the kind of knowledge or course meant. I believe it is more likely the humanities -- history, English lit -- in the middle of the spectrum, where people mostly just forget what they learned because it is of no use. At the other extreme are the social pseudo sciences -- poli sci, sociology, you name it -- where everything is just so much garbage, and students are better off if they do forget what was in the class.

  • Schu||

    You're underestimating the laziness of HR departments. A diploma is an easy sorting method used to use to determine which candidates end up getting an interview, even if the degree is completely irrelevant to the task. No degree and difficult to correlate job experience is too much effort to expect.

  • Toranth||

    It's not just laziness. It also protects companies from accusations of bias. As we've seen, things like tests (much less intangibles like interviews) cannot protect an employer from accusations of bias, even when the test impartially measure skills directly relevant to the job.

  • Lee Moore||

    I think that's fair. My days as a hirer predated most of these legal minefields, but they certainly exist now. But long long ago, the HR department would send me a steady stream of college credentialed dross. Their veneer had got them past the HR interview but many of them couldn't actually think, so they failed my interview. After a while I asked HR to send me the resumes of some people they'd rejected (rejected because no college degree) and I managed to pick up four or five really smart, but rough, diamonds. A couple of them finished up as big cheeses.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    Back when my employer was looking for another design engineer, I found I could thin the herd just by asking them to calculate the diameter of a disk of a given thickness necessary to equal a given volume. (A very routine task in deep draw stamping.)

    Amazing how many supposed engineers couldn't do it without resorting to a reference book. There's a difference between forgetting obscure formulas, and forgetting basic geometry.

  • VinniUSMC||

    +1 for deep draw stamping.

  • Michael P||

    HR rules and employment law also basically prevent any boss from giving a reliably honest assessment of a former employee. It's too easy to say something that can be interpreted as libel, or to not say something and have that interpreted as discrimination, so HR usually requires that the employer's agents only confirm basic, objective facts like dates of hire and separation or salary.

  • ReadMyLips88||

    Hard to consider the "gigantic market failure" when the market in question is so dominated by the public sector. If anything, Caplan is highlighting the gigantic market interference that is preventing the private sector from addressing the problem, even perverting those private market participants (e.g. Harvard, Stanford) from using this interference for their own collective gain.

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    The education sector isn't where the "gigantic market failure" is. The failure is in the labor market. Employer's are using a degree, in anything, as a cheep substitute for determining a potential employee's work ethic and other generic qualifications. This is cheep for the employers, but ever more costly for the potential employees.

  • NToJ||

    But why is that a failure?

  • dew||

    "Consider the three main traits Caplan believes education enables workers to signal to employers"...

    I think the problem with Somin's arguments is that he argues "in a perfect world, we would measure things like intelligence and conformity thus and so". I think the real world, for better or worse, is closer to Caplan. As another comment says, HR departments use simple-minded filters to eliminate most candidates; no amount of McDonalds experience is going to beat even an associate degree when going through HR (and for what it is worth, I have have been a manager at both McDs and a hiring manager/engineer in a large tech company).

  • DjDiverDan||

    "Over the last 75 years, educational attainment has greatly increased, with the average American adult today now having several years more formal education than that of 1960."

    BUT, have the students actually studied or learned more during those extra years? I would submit that the answer is NO; in fact they learned a lot less (and often, a great deal that is just wrong). I'm older now, having graduated from High School in 1972, College in 1977, Law School/MBA Program in 1982. My Grandmother was born in 1898, and only went to school through 8th grade. But, in order to graduate from 8th Grade in 1912, one had to have a mastery of math through algebra, a mastery of English grammar, a mastery of World and U.S. Geography, and much more, that is sadly lacking among all but a very tiny minority of today's High School Grads, even among all but a small minority of today's College grads. So don't measure "educational attainment" merely by the number of years that a student went to school, if all they could have passed was attendance under any rational evaluation system.

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    "BUT, have the students actually studied or learned more during those extra years? I would submit that the answer is NO;"

    Yep. It's exceedingly difficult to significantly increase capacity/output in any process without causing a decrease in the quality of the output.

    This is especially true for processes where the main input is human intellect. The pool of real talent in any field is limited. As you increase the number of people performing that process, you have to add more and more ever lower quality talent to the process.

    As you add more and more professionals to any profession, be it teachers, doctors or anything else, the ratio of poor and mediocre talent to top quality talent will rise, lowering the aggregate quality of the output of that profession.

  • NToJ||

    Why does the average ELO rating in chess continue to increase?

  • David Nieporent||

    I'm older now, having graduated from High School in 1972, College in 1977, Law School/MBA Program in 1982. My Grandmother was born in 1898, and only went to school through 8th grade. But, in order to graduate from 8th Grade in 1912, one had to have a mastery of math through algebra, a mastery of English grammar, a mastery of World and U.S. Geography, and much more, that is sadly lacking among all but a very tiny minority of today's High School Grads, even among all but a small minority of today's College grads.

    You forgot to say, "And get off my lawn."

    Not sure why you think 8th grade was so demanding in 1912. Because of fifty year old rose-colored memories recited by your grandmother?

  • NToJ||

    You can't question the witness because casting aspersions on the dead is considered bad form. And since she's dead she can't answer them anyway.

  • MightyMouse||

    Heard of the Flynn effect?

  • phattyboombatty||

    To be fair there was a lot less to learn in 1912. For example, the U.S. History course only had to cover 136 years. A student today now has to learn 242 years of U.S. History in order to "master" the subject. Not to mention, since the U.S. now has hundreds of millions of citizens, there are so many more historical events occurring every year.

    Plus, there's additional technologies that have been invented that students must now learn in order to properly participate in society. For example, a modern student has to take driver's education to learn how to drive a car. A modern student has to take computer courses.

    On the flip side, there were waaaaay fewer distractions for a kid in 1912. No television, video games, or iphones to waste 100's of hours. So, out of utter boredom, I'm guessing a lot more book reading took place.

  • MightyMouse||

    Networking is also factor. In many cases, hiring Alumni have an affinity for fellow Alumni in a similar way that personality types have an affinity for personality types.

  • Longtobefree||

    conscientiousness????

    All a recent degree does in reality is show an attitude that borrowing money you cannot pay back is a normal activity, and that no one should ever disagree with you on any subject whatsoever.

    The only reason a recent degree holder (not earner) earns more money than someone without a recent degree is that businesses have replaced actual thought in the hiring process with "degree required".

  • MightyMouse||

    If a greater amount of choice were provided within curriculum (ie physics majors don't need to take entho-musicalogy, or visa versa) might eliviate some pain and suffering. However, studying a variety of subjects sparks new interests and insights.

    Remember, Steve Jobs sat in on a calligraphy class leading to innovative fonts. If the silicone valley companies run by college dropouts mostly hire graduates, does that mean the HR departments of have all gone rogue?

  • AmosArch||

    Primary education is useful for acquiring basic skills like writing and numbers that a large proportion would not otherwise learn as well although the traditional classroom is structured to favor girls over boys and many areas can't even teach the basics properly. After that, the further you go the smaller the positive and larger the negatives. Its safe to say the majority would get by fine without what they forgot from the college classroom. College for most, is most valuable as an easy resume filter for employers and a networking opportunity for the employee. You're far better off concentrating on finding a husband or a spoiled rich friend/future business partner than remembering the details of your Gay Malaysian Poetry of the 1800s class. It is tempting to give in to recent trends and outright turn universities into fulltime adult daycare where young horny people just live together and mingle and party. Its what everybody sensible remembers and cherishes about college and it turns out it might be more valuable than the formal quote unquote education after all. Not to say continuing education isn't important, it is but there may be better ways to do it than sitting in a class learning about Postmodern feminist deconstruction of Inuit sculpture for 5 years for 150K.

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    Even in primary education, spending has increased drastically over the last few decades while objective measure of educational achievement have barely increased or in some cases even declined.

    If we could figure out how to do it efficiently, we could probably achieve the results we get now at something around half what we currently spend.

  • Allutz||

    The sneaky problem is that we WERE doing it pretty efficiently, and people didn't like the results (which was that kids failed, and did so disproportionately along class and race lines). This is because of the cult of "The Blank Slate" which is a wholly unsupported scientific theory.

  • MightyMouse||

    It is important education signaling keep its strength, if only so that reason is valued over politics, writ large, in society.

  • Mesoman||

    Companies used to test for intelligence. Affirmative action, and insanely low criteria for convicting a company of racial discrimination put and end to that. Companies were ordered to not use IQ tests. So were governments.

    So, the first two signals can no longer be discerned by methods that the market had tested and that worked (albeit with flaws inherent in any system that sorts human beings).

    But consider - these days, unlike the past, corporate hiring is controlled by the HR people - for legal reasons. There are so many ways a company can be sued that they have to turn to HR professionals, or use outside consultants instead of employees. And, guess who crews HR departments: people with degrees in economically useless subjects, who have an inherent bias in seeing the value of the college degrees like the ones they got in underwater basket weaving or whatever.

    Unless we can escape the ever tightening coils of political correctness, our business economy is doomed.

  • MightyMouse||

  • MightyMouse||

    Here's a link to general intelligence preemployment test services
    https://www.criteriacorp.com/solution/aptitude.php

  • Allutz||

    In other words professor Somin's point that:

    The existence of relatively cheap ways to signal the traits that Caplan emphasizes weakens the claim that income gains from education are overwhelmingly due to signaling. It is difficult to believe that people devote such vast resources to a signaling method when there are far less costly and time-consuming ways to achieve the same result.

    Is wholly unsupported by the evidence. It is clear that there are much better ways to evaluate prospective employees (standardized testing), but employers feel as if they cannot use them. Perhaps he should look into a little something called Griggs v. Duke Power Company.

  • NToJ||

    But see Ricci v. DeStefano.

  • ReaderY||

    The argument does seem rather simplistic. There are multiple tiers of colleges, and the income potential from a top-tier college is considerably higher than a bottom-tier. And there are a wide variety of programs. I agree income is not the only possible reason to be educated. To pick a counterexample, how does reading the Volokh Conspiracy increase ones income, especially for the many readers who aren't lawyers? And if it doesn't, does this make it a waste of ones time?

    It's likely true college isn't for everyone, it's likely true universities spend lots of money on administration, luxury facilities, marketing, etc., it's entirely possible that competition results in these expenditures and they represent a sort of counterproductive competitive arms race. It's quite possible economies can be made. But even given these criticisms, it's unlikely higher education is a complete waste of money.

  • Toranth||

    If I were paying $60,000 per year to access the Volokh Conspiracy, it most certainly would be a waste.

    College isn't for everyone. In fact, it isn't for most people - until recently, only between 25% and 33% of adults attended any university. Now, we're past 50%, pushing 66%, and aiming for 100%. At the same time, trade and vocational schools have dropped as a percentage, despite increasing need for those jobs.

    It's voodoo sociology: People with college degrees have higher than average outcomes, so if we give everyone college degrees, everyone will higher than average outcomes!

  • MightyMouse||

    If everyone has the same income, but one makes less, then virtually everyone will be above average.

  • Allutz||

    Yes there are tiers of colleges, but there are also tiers of students who get into them. A kid who gets into U Chicago is already more qualified than a person who gets into Eastern Illinois. Indeed, on things like intelligence, patience, work ethic, and learned skills there are probably 3+ standard deviations difference between the two kids (and even the kid who gets into Eastern is many standard deviations over a kid who barely graduates high school, who is still more ahead of a dropout). And this is all before the education starts.

    So a kid with a 4.0 HS GPA and a 1550 on the SATs is being compared against a 3.0 with a 1200. Will the gap widen as a result of one going to UChicago and one to Eastern? Actually the best evidence we have says no. What is that evidence? The "mismatch" evidence from affirmative action studies. Underqualified kids who get into Tier 1 schools have the same or worse outcomes than equivalent kids who get into T2 schools where they are properly qualified.

  • Bruce Hayden||

    Except, of course, that this is only the case when comparing like with like demographically, and, esp racially. The UChicago Black may actually be less qualified scholasticly than whites or Asians attending schools a rung or two below Chicago. Maybe not enough to cover the distances between Chicago and Eastern, but still significant.

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    "There are multiple tiers of colleges, and the income potential from a top-tier college is considerably higher than a bottom-tier."

    Sure, as long as you are comparing identical majors.

    I would be willing to be that an engineering or computer science degree from a bottom tier school has more income potential than a (random identity group) studies degree from a top tier school.

  • ReaderY||

    It could be argued Americans spend large sums of money on executive salaries, shareholder profits, marketing, lawyers, etc. and if these features of corporate life could be drastically reduced, people could get the same goods and services for much less. Especially where marketing, administration, unnecessary luxury, and similar expenses are concerned, it isn't really clear to me that the arguments against university culture coming from the right are all that different from the arguments against corporate culture coming from the left.

  • OtisAH||

    There's one major difference: People write articles about, and take seriously, right wing arguments against education.

  • apedad||

    ". . . right wing arguments against education."

    Yep, keep 'em dumb, amright!

    That way they don't get all uptitty an' wantin' things like skools an' drinkin' water an' lawers.

  • Careless||

    Why you want to highlight your bigotry like this is a mystery

  • loveconstitution1789||

    The argument that education is a majority denominator for good citizens should be avoided. A prime example are the Germans from 1930 through 1945 tended to be educated and supported a horrible regime.

  • MightyMouse||

    Hitler didn't go to college

  • MightyMouse||

    People with college degrees don't vote for people without college degrees.

  • Toranth||

    That is an interesting claim.
    I didn't find anything about candidate's education levels in the General Social Survey, the American National Education Studies data, or the National Politics Study.

    Can you share what source you found that tidbit in? I'm interested in seeing how it works.

  • MightyMouse||

  • MightyMouse||

    Sorry, wrong link. Here is the right one. Still page 14
    https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42365.pdf

  • OtisAH||

    Page 14 of that study makes no claim whatsoever that people with college degrees vote only for people with college degrees. It discusses changing demographics in Congress, not voting patterns or preferences. In fact, most everybody votes for candidates with degrees because candidates with degrees are the people most likely to run for Congress (95.2% of Reps, and 99% of Sens held degrees in the 112th Congress).

  • dontquestionit||

    Perhaps they are unable to create a cheaper and more efficient signaling method due to the complexity and cost of that task.

    The view that education is good is widespread and based on nothing other than "common sense" or other hokum. it has to mean something. Sure, everyone can do it and standards are on the decline, but it must mean something.

    A more efficient and effective signaling method would require educating everyone in society. From the time people are young, they are told that college is necessary for a good life. It leads to a better job and more money and more stuff. That is a lot to overcome. Plus there are some who see any criticism of specific education practices as an attack on the very idea of education. Fixing this "problem" is no easy task. Maybe that is why no one attempts it.

  • Robert||

    Schooling is a racket which I've been heavily into both sides of. I've told my college classes several times, "College is a racket." Textbooks are a racket within the racket. Lab equipment's a racket too, as are grant-funded research & publications. Primary school is an enormous waste of time. Jr. & sr. HS come closest to being anything like efficient, taking only 6 yrs. to deliver 2-3 yrs. of useful training.

  • Robert||

    It's not so much (but yeah, a little) that schools are teaching the wrong things for civic education. Rather, it's that politics is pursuing the wrong things & too many things. If public policy were limited to the description given of it in school, it'd be a lot better. The problem ain't w "civics", it's w "civils"; the world is too uncivil to live up to its civics.

  • M.L.||

    The basic point seems self-evidently true. The solution is that the federal government should stop funding education altogether, especially higher education. Need to go back to when tuition could be paid with a summer's wages.

  • NToJ||

    "For example, employees could submit standardized test scores to employers (which have a high correlation with employment)."

    I'm a small business employer. I don't have the time to review standardized test scores and decipher the data. So that task is outsourced to Colleges, who I pay for only indirectly due to my employees' higher demand for salary to accommodate their student loans. I could just take a chance on a non-college graduate, but the cost of turnover is extremely high. Further, the standardized test score won't tell me much about whether the person can complete a complicated, multi-year task.

    Having said that I'm not certain that there isn't a massive market failure.

  • ||

    Perhaps an even more important benefit of a college education is acculturation. You meet large numbers of middle class people and learn to act like them. You learn how to speak like an educated person. You become accustomed to the likes and dislikes of middle class professionals. You learn to have the interests, tastes, and attitudes of educated middle class people. You network with a lot of people who are going to have middle class jobs and middle class incomes. You learn a lot in college; most of it has nothing to do with academics.

  • JeffreyL||

    I have a major complaint against the statistics that college grads will have significantly higher incomes based on prior results. I had this huge complaint when i was at a symposium at the Chicago Federal Reserve back in January and one of the analysts of the Chicago Fed indicated the same thing. The problem is that the income levels obtained is skewed so heavily by individuals who are now 40 plus years old. A college education meant something 25 years ago. Not so much anymore.

    College is now so not worth it.

    Let me give you an example. If you ask people over the age of 45 how much their tuition and fees was for their entire bachelor degree and ask them to compare that amount to their first year salary after graduation. Essentially 99 out of 100 polled will indicate that their first job out of college was less than their tuition and fee bill for the entire college education. If you ask people over the age of 55, if their entire college cost, including room and board, was less than their starting salary after graduation you get close to 100 out of 100 who say yes. Please note, i am not asking how much they paid, i am asking simply about cost, regardless of who pays.

    If you ask the same question today, 0 out of 100. If you ask today how many graduate with a degree in which their starting salary after graduation was greater than their first year tuition and fees, you will most likely get fewer than 25 out of 100.

  • bernard11||

    First of all, before we talk too much about Caplan's Great Insight, let's note that this idea was introduced 45 years ago by Michael Spence. The idea and its development earned him, along with Stiglitz and Akerlof, an Economics Nobel in 2001, so it's not exactly an original, previously unheard of notion.

    Suppose we accept that a large part of education is signaling. (I think some of it is, but not nearly to the degree Caplan claims). Somin's substitutes don't really seem all that great. Submit an intelligence test? A signal based on four years of data is a heck of a lot more accurate than the score on a one-day IQ test, which in fact does not measure some attributes an employer wants - ability to work cooperatively with others, to plan and carry a project to completion, to manage one's time effectively, etc. Nor, in fact does Somin's baby-sitting address these things, though it certainly does indicate conscientiousness and trustworthiness, (assuming that he got repeat business, which he no doubt did).

  • JonFrum||

    " education increases marriage rates."

    Say it aloud while you read it - 'Correlation is not causation.' It shouldn't be a mystery that people who are able to attend to schooling and prepare properly for a career with a reasonable income are likely to be the same people who get - and stay - married.

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