In our increasingly uncertain world, there’s still one thing almost everyone seems to agree on: the value of a college degree. In the modern economy, it’s seen as a given that we should bear almost any cost to ensure that our children graduate from college.
That being the case, it was illuminating to read “The Case Against Education,” a book by George Mason University economics professor Bryan Caplan that challenges many of the standard talking points used to defend the higher education system.
Given its title, I was expecting the book to challenge the value of a college degree altogether. Interestingly, Caplan doesn’t go that route. He admits early on that “the earnings premium for college graduates has rocketed to 73 percent—that is, those with a bachelor’s degree earn, on average, 73 percent more than those who have only a high-school diploma.”
Case closed, right? College is the greatest thing since sliced bread? Not so fast.
The problem, as Caplan sees it, is not whether college pays off, but why. He also tackles whether we can get similar results without spending as much money.
Here are a couple of the main problems Caplan sees with higher education, as well as some solutions.
We Aren’t Learning Much in College
The crux of the problem with higher education, according to Caplan, is that “students spend thousands of hours studying subjects irrelevant to the modern labor market.”
Reading that line made me think of one of my father’s favorite quips upon hearing an insult that hits too close to home: “Hey, I resemble that comment!”
While in college, I spent many hours learning about poetry, hieroglyphics, and Greek mythology. It was fun, but I can’t say my knowledge of those topics helped me much while looking for a job. When I think about how much I was paying for those classes, I want to pull my hair out.
In Caplan’s eyes, a big reason most kids spend so much time learning stuff that doesn’t matter is because the teachers themselves aren’t prepared to teach real job skills. “Educators… have little firsthand knowledge of the modern workplace,” Caplan writes. It almost goes without saying that it’s a bad idea to fork over huge sums of money to study irrelevant topics taught by teachers who, while certainly well-meaning, aren’t making students job-ready.
Even worse, students aren’t retaining much knowledge from college, regardless of what we study. Caplan opened my eyes to a large-scale study from the U.S. Department of Education which looked at adult literacy. The results were grim, as less than one-third of college graduates got a score of “proficient.”
So, if we aren’t learning or retaining much from college classes, what purpose are they serving? According to Caplan, the college experience is really all about a phenomenon known as signaling.
The Real Benefit of a College Degree
One of Caplan’s goals with the book is to shine on a light on the importance of signaling.
Signaling refers to the idea that many behaviors people engage in are done so not because they’re intrinsically valuable, but because of what they signal to others. For example, people who drive fancy cars are generally trying to signal, “I am wealthy!” even though the mere act that they have that car tells us very little about their finances.
Could we be using a college degree in the same way we use fancy cars and fancy clothes?
Caplan thinks so. He believes we’re not so much learning in college, but rather signaling that we’re conscientious and hardworking. As Caplan puts it, “The labor market doesn’t pay you for the useless subjects you master; it pays you for the preexisting traits you signal by mastering them.” Essentially, this means that all the expense of college could be done away with if we could just figure out a more efficient way of showing employers that we’re ready to be good workers.
Lest you think this is a fringe idea, Caplan reveals that he’s building on the work of several Nobel laureates in economics who have contributed to the signaling theory. In studying several factors related to college degrees and subsequent earnings, Caplan concludes that signaling accounts for 80% of the value of a college degree. He astutely notes that “every college student who does the least work required to get good grades silently endorses the theory.”
Even if the signaling hypothesis is not as ironclad as Caplan claims, the theory is worth some deep thought. Is higher education helping with the development of a knowledgeable society (what’s sometimes called “human capital”), or are we teaching our young people that all that really matters is signaling that they have the right traits to get a good job?
If it’s the latter, shouldn’t there be ways of going about signaling that don’t perpetuate a massive student loan crisis with increasing default rates?
How to Get More Bang for Your Buck
While the main focus of the book is to point out flaws in the education system, Caplan is not all doom and gloom. He offers up some ways to get the most out of one’s education.
First, if you go to college and you want a return on your investment, you should seriously consider studying subjects that will result in marketable job skills. No surprises here, as the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) mostly get Caplan’s blessing.
I believe Caplan would also agree with The Simple Dollar’s suggestion to check the stats before picking your major. If you are going to invest so much time and money into a degree, it’s critical that you at least give yourself the option of finding high paying work when it’s all said and done.
Finally, Caplan also touts the benefits of vocational school, where students quickly learn narrow skills for specific, in-demand jobs. These schools are cheap and easy ways for people to get job-ready when they think they might not be a good fit for college. Caplan notes that “research, though a bit sparse, suggests that vocational education raises pay, reduces unemployment, and increases the rate of high-school completion.”
Some Counter Points
As someone who has previously wondered whether I’d have been better off going to community college instead of attending Harvard, I’ll admit I was the ideal audience for this book. And while I agree with a lot of the points, I should also point out a couple of areas where I felt Caplan’s case was weak.
For one thing, he rails against the humanities as a mostly useless institution, and proclaims that those who see its benefits are engaging in “wishful thinking.” As someone who’s passionate about literature and writing, this rubs me the wrong way. There’s something to be said about wanting to produce good of intangible significance, even if it means forgoing a lucrative career. Furthermore, I’ve found that writing skills (which are honed in the humanities) are in high demand on the job market.
Another point of contention is Caplan’s call for a “complete separation of school and state.” He thinks “government should stop using tax dollars to fund education of any kind.” This kind of policy would be destabilizing and negatively affect millions of kids. I’m all for trying bold things, but saying something that outlandish only serves to distract from the more interesting points he makes.
For a thorough piece that challenges many of Caplan’s assertions, check out this article by The Boston Review.
Reading Caplan’s book will make you want to be a better, more efficient person. If you already wasted a lot of time and money in college, like me, than you’ll be motivated to make up for lost time. If you’re about to embark on your college journey, it will be a sobering reminder to make the most of your time.
Caplan is convincing when he argues that if we eliminate many of the wasteful aspects of college, and make sure only the students who’ll truly benefit from college attend in the first place, we will all be better off. If you want to read a book that makes you challenge your preconceived notions and provides quite a few interesting thought experiments, I highly recommend giving “The Case Against Education” a read.