Is School a Waste of Time?

Originally published in Democracy‘s summer 2018 issue.
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The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money By Bryan Caplan • Princeton University Press • 2018 • 416 pages • $29.95

George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan, the highly influential libertarian scholar who authored The Myth of the Rational Voter and Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, has a knack for attention-getting polemics. In the former work, he argues that it’s biased and ignorant voters who drive bad economic policy; in the latter, he contends that adults should just chill out since their parenting styles will barely affect their children’s life outcomes anyway. Whatever you want to call these arguments, you can’t say they’re boring.

And now Caplan is out with yet another controversial take. In his new book, The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money, he makes a relatively straightforward argument. He begins by laying out the conventional narrative, which goes that schooling provides knowledge, skills, or concepts that are valuable and therefore translate into higher earnings. But Caplan then quickly pivots, asserting that the vast benefit of education comes from the “signals” a diploma or credential sends to a college or employer. In other words, employers and admissions officers can infer certain things about an applicant’s conscientiousness, persistence, and conformity by the very fact that she has earned a high school diploma or college degree. A candidate who makes it to graduation day versus someone who dropped out the day before graduation is likely quite similar in terms of skills and aptitude. But if you had to choose one over the other, the applicant who finished out the process, who earned the degree as expected, would be assumed to have a stronger or more reliable work ethic.

In other words, Caplan thinks most of the value of school comes from signaling, not from real learning. He estimates that such signals even exceed 50 percent of the value of schooling, and probably upwards of 80 percent. Yet even if this signaling constitutes just 30 percent of an education’s value—and he argues there’s no way it could be less than that—then, he concludes, we should still agree that schooling is a huge waste of time and resources.

But why, exactly, is that? Because, he writes, we generally forget what we learn, and employers don’t really seem to care. Few can recall specific historical facts or trigonometric ratios or French verbs, so the argument that education trains us for the workplace seems suspect. This leads Caplan to the conclusion that since education is wasteful, we should dramatically cut government subsidies and shift the economic burden of schooling onto students and their families; they can then decide for themselves whether to waste their own time and money on it. Leave the business of schooling to charity and the private sector. If fewer people can afford to go to school as a result, all the better. “My thesis, in a single sentence,” Caplan writes, “[is] civilized societies revolve around education now, but there is a better, indeed more civilized way: We can switch as soon as adults collectively admit we’re making childish mistakes. We have to admit academic success is a great way to get a good job, but a poor way to learn how to do a good job. If everyone got a college degree, the result would not be great jobs for all, but runaway credential inflation. Trying to spread success with education spreads education but not success.”

Caplan does conclude it probably makes smart economic sense for most kids to finish high school. “High school is a good deal for almost any student who wants a full-time career after graduation,” he writes. College, on the other hand, should be reserved only for “strong student[s]” or “special case[s]” such as those who win generous scholarships. Within the K-12 system, he wants to see vocational education offerings significantly expanded, and I’d be remiss not to mention his characterization of history, social studies, art, music, and foreign languages as “fat” that we should purge from curricula immediately, leaving room only for “practical” disciplines like engineering and math. “About 40 percent of [college] graduates earn degrees in comically—or tragicomically—useless subjects,” Caplan writes.

Unsurprisingly, much of Caplan’s book seems deliberately designed to simply provoke readers—sometimes with the spirit of an Internet troll. “What’s wrong with child labor?” he asks at one point. Sure, he admits, it “has a dark side.” But “[t]hen again, so does book learning.” Given that leaders regularly say education will help prepare young people for landing jobs when they’re older, Caplan says the more efficient thing would be to just “deregulate and destigmatize” child labor now, landing kids part-time jobs in their youth. Simply put, the best way to educate kids for work, he reasons, is to get them working experience.

In a section examining whether an individual should go to college, Caplan asks: “[A]re you a woman who firmly plans to marry?” If so, he says, “Then despite your spotty academic record, college may be for you.” Over half of a woman’s financial payoff for college quality, he claims, could come from marriage, suggesting women who attend good colleges tend to marry higher-earning spouses. “It’s not my fault married women profit more from education than single women,” Caplan writes defensively.

It’s more than the message that is off-putting. So is the tone. Indeed, there are multiple times in The Case Against Education when Caplan praises himself for being a bold truth-teller, simply here to report the data that everyone else is too cowardly to reckon with. “My counsel rubs many the wrong way,” he writes. “Some dismiss it as ‘elitist’, ‘philistine’ or ‘sexist.’ The correct label is candid.”

To disagree with Caplan’s conclusions, he writes, indicates you’ve fallen victim to “Social Desirability Bias”—meaning you’ve fallen victim to fictions that may have sounded appealing, but in reality you just don’t want to confront the truth. Indeed, everyone but Caplan is tainted with bias or misinformation. Leaders who speak of the need to provide every child with the best education are just demagogues, pandering for popularity. Readers who disagree are in denial: hopeless defenders of mediocrity, failure, and the status quo. No one is capable of principled disagreement; no education supporters could rationally defend education as an intrinsic good and smart societal investment even when it doesn’t increase earnings.

Caplan engages only trivially with his critics and their counterarguments, while acting as though he’s exhausted the evidence and fully accounted for any reasonable objection. For example: He concedes that yes, in theory history, civics, and foreign languages are important subjects for democratic citizenship, but the data show we’re just not good at teaching them, demonstrated by the fact that people don’t remember specific details decades later. Therefore, Caplan says, we should obviously stop teaching those areas, and we should certainly stop spending money in vain attempts to teach them better. If this were at all possible, he contends, we would have figured it out by now.

Never mind that families have been clamoring for more bilingual offerings, that millions of people around the world successfully learn second and third languages in school and go on to use them later in their careers and beyond. Never mind that the ability to recall specific historical facts on-demand 30 years down the line has never been the real objective of learning history, but to forge deeper understandings of our past, present, and future. Never mind that it can be much easier to relearn information if you’ve already studied it once before, that forgetting things is perfectly all right, and that perhaps there were good reasons activists spent decades trying to outlaw child labor.

Yet, for all its nonsense, some elements of Caplan’s book are worthwhile. While I almost always disagreed with his conclusions, he did manage to explore areas of educational dogma that I, too, have encountered in my reporting, and which certainly do get short shrift from education advocates. “Education’s powers of social transformation are galactically overrated,” Caplan writes. On this most basic concept, we agree.

He rightly pours some cold water on the elite conventional wisdom that everyone should go to college no matter what, by any means necessary. In making this argument, he first presents the statistics: Yes, high school graduates in the United States outearn high school dropouts by 30 percent. Yes, college graduates earn 73 percent more than high school graduates. There is an earnings boost that comes from continuing your education, even if we generally exaggerate how large that boost is. The United States has the largest high school premium and nearly the highest college premium of all 35 OECD nations, so the incentives for staying in school are not imaginary.

But, as Caplan says, throwing those figures around as irrefutable proof of education’s value is silly and unfounded. Given the earnings premium, it might make very good sense to continue your schooling. But there are other questions to consider when making the decision. “When you invest in your education, how well does your investment pay off for you?” he asks. “Depends on income, fringe benefits, unemployment risks, job satisfaction, health . . . the point: When you weigh the value of education, knowing the benefits of education is not enough. You also need to know costs and timing.” That should seem obvious, and uncontroversial, but you’d be surprised how little education advocates like to focus on these costs and risks, and how simply raising the question translates to many as “You don’t believe in students.”

A few years ago, economist Marshall Steinbaum published research showing that the demographic groups most likely to miss payments on their student loan are middle-class African-American and Latino college graduates. Loan delinquency and default can result in increased fees, wage garnishments, and even lawsuits. In other words, we typically tend to believe that if you can just manage to earn that college degree, you’ll find economic security. And so we relentlessly encourage higher education, and tell students it is worth taking out loans, if necessary, to get it. But we still live in a world where blacks and Latinos have less wealth, where minorities risk a lot more to finance a college education, and where many schools often target these specific demographics with degrees that are far less valuable than their promotional materials suggest.

Caplan’s book, ironically, pairs well with Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed, a tour de force published in 2017 that explores the explosion of for-profit colleges, and the pressures individuals face today to stock up on degrees, looking for any kind of social insurance in our increasingly precarious economy. College enrollment soared following the Great Recession, in part because the government allowed students at for-profit institutions to qualify for federal loans. For all his insistence that he’s telling truths no one else wants to hear, Caplan’s evidently not the only one thinking about credentialism and its ills. Yet as works such as McMillan Cottom’s show, from this same conclusion one can arrive at far different and better solutions.

Caplan rightly observes that education can’t solve everyone’s economic problems. But his proposed libertarian policy fixes—to slash education subsidies, to dramatically limit school offerings, to reduce taxes and government regulation—are hardly likely to yield better results.

Last year, I published an article looking at the growing body of evidence suggesting educational attainment is actually not the main factor influencing whether a child will one day outearn his parents (what economists refer to as “intergenerational mobility”). Differences in regional labor markets—such as the presence and strength of labor unions, and clear career pathways within local industries—have been found to play much more significant roles in facilitating a poor child’s ability to rise atop the economic ladder, compared to, say, the quality of the school she attended. I was surprised by how much this article upset people working in education advocacy. Many seemed to bristle at the suggestion that school improvement efforts aren’t the best way to solve poverty or, more generally, make the economy work better for a larger number of people. One critic even called me “immoral” for writing it.

But the point wasn’t to argue against investing in education, which is essentially what Caplan does in his book. Education is still crucial for building citizenship, for maintaining democratic polities, for fostering human development. But it would be better if our government stopped looking at schools as the ticket to economic security, and stopped acting as though our ability to afford health insurance, housing, and food should depend on whether one is capable of obtaining a college degree. People are under pressure to continue their educations—sometimes indefinitely—because we’ve reduced spending on welfare, because we fail to provide people with affordable basic services, because we’ve decimated unions that used to offer stability within industries sans extra years of schooling. And rhetoric that justifies public education because of its supposed utilitarian economic gains to students only plays into the hands of critics like Caplan.

We can’t and shouldn’t expect education to do everything in the first place. Improving schools is a worthwhile endeavor, but improving pedagogy in the classroom can’t guarantee the creation of new jobs in the aggregate. From an individual standpoint, attending a better school may very well be the best way to boost your earning potential and hack it in today’s modern economy. Caplan would agree. But for policymakers looking to help more people improve their economic circumstances, schools are just not likely to be the main mechanism to make that happen. Caplan gestures toward real problems, but fails to arrive at the right conclusions and to reckon with the broader context of economic insecurity in which these debates play out. The Case Against Education Fixing Our Economy is the book I think we really need.

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