The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money, by Bryan Caplan (Princeton University Press, 400 pp., $29.95)

In The Case Against Education, a persuasive indictment of his own industry, George Mason University economics professor Bryan Caplan quotes Harvard professor Steven Pinker on his teaching experience at America’s most storied institution of higher learning. “A few weeks into every semester,” says the eminent psychologist and polymath, “I face a lecture hall that is half empty, despite the fact that I am repeatedly voted a Harvard Yearbook Favorite Professor, that the lectures are not video recorded, and that they are the only source of certain material that will be on the exam.”

Pinker adds: “I don’t take it personally; it’s common knowledge that Harvard students stay away from lectures in droves.”

Such apathy is the norm. According to data cited by Caplan, 25 percent to 40 percent of college students don’t show up for class, even when attendance counts toward the grade. What share of the rest would bother to show up if that weren’t the case? As for high school students, for whom cutting class is a serious offense, two-thirds report being bored in class every day, according to a survey Caplan cites.

Caplan’s subtitle promises to explain “why the education system is a waste of time and money.” He exempts the teaching of essentials like reading, writing, and basic math, and professional and vocational programs that develop in-demand job skills. As for the rest of the curriculum, forget it. “Teach curious students about ideas and culture,” he suggests. “Leave the rest in peace and hope they come around.” The core question that Caplan addresses is why employers so richly reward high school and college degrees, when the content of the coursework has so little to do with the jobs employers offer. Yet college graduates earn substantially more than high school graduates, who earn more than high school dropouts.

Caplan builds on the work of other economists in arguing that 80 percent of schooling is not about skills useful in the workplace, but about “signaling.” By earning a college diploma, you convey a message about yourself to employers—not necessarily that you’re smarter than everyone else, but that you’re conscientious and willing to play by the rules, qualities that employers value highly. The diploma serves as evidence of these traits. Perhaps the most decisive proof of this theory is the “sheepskin effect.” If college really does boost human capital, you’d expect those who finish three of the four years to earn roughly three-quarters of the wage premium attributed to college; in fact, three years gets you less than half that amount. Completing the last year counts for more than half because it signals conscientiousness and conformity—the sheepskin effect.

Employers don’t bear the cost of obtaining this information, but parents, students, and taxpayers do. In 1950, before the push to create government-funded higher education, a high school diploma was about as valuable for signaling as a college diploma is today. Now we spend hundreds of billions more for the same signal once provided by secondary schools, with no discernible gains in productivity.

The author floats some radical proposals for reform. One is a massive rollback of formal years of schooling that would retain emphasis on basic skills and on vocational education. If schools no longer offered the signaling function, employers would have to resort to other ways of screening applicants, including internships and apprenticeships. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, the Manhattan Institute’s Chris Pope and Tim Rice point out that “courses required for a bachelor’s degree [have] little to do with medicine,” and urge that the U.S. follow the lead of Europe and allow young people to start medical training “immediately after high school.” But why stop there? Most K-12 courses have little to do with what most people do for a living, medicine included. So why not allow 13-year-olds to start professional programs and apprenticeships, in virtually any field?

On his popular podcast EconTalk, Hoover Institution economist Russ Roberts faulted Caplan for not recognizing the mind-enhancing benefits—admittedly hard to measure—of formal education. But even granting the existence of these benefits, there is considerable harm (also hard to measure) caused by compulsory schooling: resentment, impairment of curiosity, and revulsion from being force-fed ideas and culture. When Caplan spoke at the Cato Institute, questioners charged him with indifference to the real goal of education: “to create great citizens,” as one put it. But his data show that schools are failing miserably on that metric. Most Americans are shockingly ignorant about the most rudimentary facts concerning U.S. history and government. 

Egalitarians, who generally believe that money spent on schooling helps the poor, accuse Caplan of being indifferent to the plight of the less fortunate. The radical reforms that Caplan proposes might change their minds. In their 1979 book, Free to Choose, Milton and Rose Friedman amply documented the “perverse redistributive effect of government expenditures on higher education”—that is, redistribution from poor to rich. Updated research would probably find the same dynamic at work today. Childless people of limited means who don’t go to college, and those with children who don’t go, pay taxes that help fund public universities attended by the children of the well-to-do; they also help finance enrichment programs for the gifted and talented that disproportionately benefit the well-off. Roll this system back, and inequality would be diminished.

For the talented offspring of the poor, abolishing high school and college diplomas as signaling devices will mean a more level playing field. The rich can afford the costly years of schooling required to get a decent job; the poor can’t. Without the needless hurdles imposed by the signaling system, a young person from a poor family might graduate from medical school at 19, in a much better position to help support her parents and herself. Then, too, funds freed up from paying for unnecessary schooling can help finance more focused instruction in literacy, numeracy, and vocational skills. Especially if the charter school movement continues to grow, poor people of limited skills would be helped most of all.

Caplan observes that if his proposals get implemented, he’d probably lose the tenured position he loves. Unfortunately, he has little reason to worry anytime soon.

Photo: dolgachov/iStock


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