Bryan Caplan’s *Case Against Higher Education*
A Professor Explains Why His Product is Overrated
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Each year, the government spends $80 billion dollars on subsidies to higher education, making it more attractive for high school students to spend four of their most critical years studying topics only marginally more useful than underwater basket weaving.
Bryan Caplan, a professor of economics at George Mason University, admits to being an Ivory Tower academic (he jokes that he’s now in the 41st grade) and that most of his students won’t ever use the material he teaches. He also thinks we spend way too much for “products” like his. This frank insider’s perspective only lends more credibility to his new book, The Case against Education. However, Caplan acknowledges that he’s fighting an uphill battle against rational self-interest. For most kids, college still pays, and employers still want that piece of paper certifying that its recipient is “system-approved” — i.e., smart enough to play the game, follow directions, and tolerate substantial boredom in the pursuit of abstract goals.
Caplan joined the show of ideas, not attitude to discuss his version of Nobel Prize-winning “signaling theory” applied to the sacred cow of higher education.
While other economists might be afraid to stand behind such a contrarian opinion, Caplan has never shied away from unpopular opinion (ah, tenure). He has written about cryonics, the rationality of terrorists and why yard waste is garbage and shouldn’t be recycled. And in each case, his arguments are surprisingly persuasive.
Know any high school students considering an alternative to the elaborate and expensive system of hoops we call the University? Listen now.
You’ve Heard of Grade Inflation, But What About Credential Inflation?
The key to understanding Caplan’s argument is to see how myths around four-year universities have captured such a strong place in the collective consciousness. Everyone “knows” that college is necessary to succeed, so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those who don’t go seem odd (or dumb), and the strength of this signal gets amplified the more money we invest in upholding the myth. Caplan summarizes it like this:
“My thesis, in a single sentence: Civilized societies revolve around education now, but there is a better — indeed, more civilized — way. If everyone had a college degree, the result would be not great jobs for all, but runaway credential inflation. Trying to spread success with education spreads education but not success.”
Even the success of Bill Gates (the Harvard drop-out) could not shatter the precious notion that education — even if not essential to earning money — must at least be “good for the soul.”
A College Degree is the New Salvation
The narrative runs like this: go to college, get a good job, save for retirement, and you’re set for life. To make matters worse, government subsidies cement the idea of higher education as an entitlement, making the prospects for rolling it back seem grim. Until this narrative is broken, it may be up to a handful of rogue reformers to buck the system and chart their own course during the college years.
Peter Thiel’s 20 Under 20 program, for example, paid promising young people to forego college and pursue their ideas. This was one plank of a new movement to challenge the university’s esteemed place in the cultural landscape. The 1517 Fund has compared the modern university system to the corrupt parts of the Catholic Church during the middle ages. In this analogy, a college degree is the new salvation, complete with a high priesthood of academics and administrators, who hold the keys of absolution. The diploma sends a strong signal to future employers that the student has done the requisite conforming and is ready for the job market, but it says nothing about what things of value the student actually learned during their time in school.
The Embarrassing Truth About Our College Grads
Caplan ushers substantial evidence for his claims. For one, he shows the near universal acceptance of the “signaling theory of education,” highlighting the Nobel prize-winning work of Michael Spence, who wrote:
“An important example is education as a signal of high individual productivity in the labor market. It is not necessary for education to have intrinsic value. Costly investment in education as such signals high ability.”
*The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money* (p. 14)
Indeed, students seem to actively try to avoid the value they might derive from diligently studying and going to class. Arnold Kling writes that higher education is the only product where the customer tries to get as little out of it as possible. Being a “full-time” student is actually more like a part-time job, with students averaging just 27 hours of academic work per week (including time in class). The rest of the time they are surfing the web, playing sports, going to parties, or just hanging out with friends.
Surveys of the general public reveal that college grads are embarrassingly ignorant — even in the impractical areas that schools emphasize in their curriculum. This leads Caplan to advocate vocational training programs in lieu of college on the grounds that it’s better to at least learn something of value while acquiring a certification than to learn next to nothing while acquiring a diploma.
The apprenticeship system works well in Germany and Switzerland, so why hasn’t it caught on in the U.S.? Caplan blames something called the “social desirability bias,” which makes people want to say only socially acceptable truths. In 2018, it’s still not cool to trash college, and apprenticeships are seen as somehow a second-class option. Telling your son or daughter to consider vocational training is akin to telling them, “Lower your expectations of life.” In addition to advocating a withdrawal of government subsidies to higher ed, libertarians might start to fight the culture war by raising the status of vocational school and lowering the status of college education.
Buy the book, or read the transcript:
Bryan Caplan’s Case Against Higher Education
Announcer: You’re listening to the Bob Zadek show, a full hour of libertarian discussion with the smartest guests on radio. Live, spontaneous and thoughtful. It’s the show of ideas, not attitude. Now your host, Bob Zadek.
Bob Zadek: Hello everyone and welcome to the Bob Zadek show –the longest running live libertarian talk radio show on all of radio. The show always of ideas, never attitude. Thank you so much for listening this Sunday morning. This morning’s guest is Bryan Caplan. Bryan Caplan is an economist who teaches economics at George Mason University. He is a blogger at Econlog — a must read every morning — and he is the author of three books, the latest of which is the subject of this morning’s discussion. Bryan has written The Myth of the Rational Voter, which the New York Times has labeled the best political book of that year. He also has written Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, and the subject of this morning’s show, The Case against Higher Education.
Education: The Last Sacred Cow
Bob Zadek: Is anybody against education? I grew up in a household where where my parents urging me to get a good education. All of my friends were instructed, “get a good education.” It was a core belief — it was then, and frankly it still is now.
The founders cherished public education. Jefferson felt strongly, as did Madison, that public education in general was the only way our country could survive. Bryan, you’re taking on my parent’s, Jefferson, and Madison in the subject of your book, The Case against Higher Education. Tell us what the thesis is of your book, and good morning.
Bryan Caplan: Good morning. A lot of what I say is very compatible with what your parents and friends told you so, but there’s a twist. I agree with the idea that if you go and do well in school then you’re likely to get a better job and make more money. What I question is that you’re actually learning useful job skills in school. Most of what you study in school, you’re never going to need to know after the final exam, which then raises the puzzle of “why do employers pay you so much for studying stuff that they don’t actually require you to know?”
My answer is that when you study subjects that you don’t use, you still impress employers. It’s way of getting certification or a way of signaling — a way of persuading employers that you’re good. The key point here is that if one person shows off, it looks good, that one person can get a better job and make more money. But if everyone shows off, this just raises the bar. Employers then say, well, if everyone’s got high school, now you need college. If everyone’s going to college, you need a master’s degree if you want me to look twice at you.
Bob Zadek: Of course you’re an economist. That’s what you study. That’s what you teach. Is the thesis of your book as simple as “education is too expensive, it is overpriced”? Are we buying something that is useless? Education, of course, is expensive — most people use that phrase, although there’s nothing to measure it against. Is it that the government — that is, all of us — is spending too much on education and it is not a sufficient public good to justify government money?
Would you feel the same way if there were no government subsidies and the students or their parents were paying the money out of their own pocket? Is it a waste of money per se, or only a waste of money if government spends it?
Bryan Caplan: There’s always a good reason to be suspicious, especially when you see people studying subjects they never actually use in the job but it still pays. I’d say that the large part of the problem is that the government is pouring money on this, largely just because they see that when one person gets more school then they do better. So they assume if everyone did school, everyone would do better. That’s precisely what I’m calling into question. If you want understand what the real social impact of education is, you’ve got to actually crack open the black box or look in the classroom and say, well, what are they studying? What are they actually learning? Is this actually useful stuff? And if you find that they’re learning useful things then you can say, “Well, it’s enriching the individual and enriching the society.”
On the other hand, if they’re just studying, say poetry or foreign language, that they’re never going to use, what you’re probably doing is encouraging this rat race where everyone needs more degrees just so they can say, “Hey, look at me. I’ve done more than other people.” Again, selfishly speaking, this works, but it’s not a way for society to get rich.
Bob Zadek: It sounds like you have lost some faith in the free market system, and let me explain. Employers in a free market, one would think, would endeavor to get the best employee at the lowest cost. You seem to be suggesting that employers look for the sheepskin, the degree as a “good housekeeping seal of approval” (Underwriters Laboratory approved, authorized for use, all that stuff). You, an employer, seem to be just requiring that certification, even though the degree per se doesn’t make that employee any better. Are employers irrational? Because that seems to be the engine that drives it. If employers wouldn’t care about a college degree, students wouldn’t endeavor as much to get one, so where’s the breakdown?
Bryan Caplan: Right, right. So it’s definitely not that employers are doing anything irrational. They say, “Look, when we go and hire non-college workers for college jobs, we usually feel disappointed with the workers that we got.” So there’s no conflict between trying to go and get the best workers, the lowest price, and caring a lot about the seal of approval. In fact, the seal approval is one of the main ways that people go and get good workers for lower prices. What I’m saying is that when government goes and subsidizes this, it raises the number of seals that you need in order to convince employers that you’re worthy. There was a time when you could get a good job right out of high school, and people usually think, “Well, that’s just because the technology was simpler back then. Now it’s just a much more sophisticated economy.” Actually, I’m saying there’s a little bit to that, but most of what’s going on is just that you need more education to do the very same job, but your parents or grandparents were able to get by with less. It’s not that employers are doing anything stupid; it’s that employers are responding to society where degrees have proliferated. So of course they’re going to go and check off the requirements.
Bob Zadek: As you point out, it is in fact the objective case that job-seekers who have a college degree — even a college degree in a subject where a lot of what they learned is, from a job performance standpoint, useless — do better. You mentioned poetry — doesn’t the student with a poetry degree realize some value, and maybe sufficient value with a degree to justify the expense? Doesn’t the student get a fair amount of value from that otherwise worthless degree, because they get a job?
Bryan Caplan: Yeah, exactly. That’s really my whole point. What’s going on is a system where people advance their own interests by showing off – individually that works works quite well for a lot of people. But socially it doesn’t make sense to encourage showing off because the more showing off we’ve got, the more impressive you have to be to get employers to take a second look at you. So in terms of the individual students, the main criticism I have is that a lot of people don’t finish and if you have a good reason to think you won’t finish, then especially college isn’t like to be a good deal for you.
Looking at it from a tax point of view, is this really the kind of thing that it makes sense to encourage? That’s where I say “No.”
The Ultimate Question of Incentives: Who Pays?
Bob Zadek: In education, like in healthcare, we have the one paying the bill — the patient in the case of healthcare, and the student in the case of education — one who is spending somebody else’s money. The patient has little idea of what things actually cost and students who are either getting student loans or subsidies don’t care that much how much something cost — at least not immediately. So is the problem of the cost of education in part the disconnect — like in healthcare — that if the student were spending her own money, that would drive down the cost of education and make students and their parents more intelligent purchases of the product?
Bryan Caplan: If you’re paying your own money you’re going to be more careful with what you do and more careful with your decisions. I don’t think that’s the sole problem. I think it’s a big contributing problem.
Again, I think it’s very important to take a look at what our students are actually studying and see if it’s really going to be useful, or is this more of something where you’re basically just showing off. You need to think about whether you are focused on the price, including subsidies or not? The whole reason government subsidizes health care and schooling is because after you subtract out the subsidy, it makes it cheaper. Most people are trying to figure out a way to make college cheaper, so that more people go, and I’m rather trying to figure out a way to stop the madness — to switch from a society where people feel like they’ve got to go to college to get a good job, back to one where you can get a good job right out of high school, which really used to be the case. I say there’s no good reason why we couldn’t have that.
Bob Zadek: There’s this phrase of “diploma mills.” It’s simply mail order or online, where you are able to spend some of the money to go through a pointless ritual. At the end of the day, you get the sheepskin which puts that seal of approval on your forehead. It sounds like you fear that all universities or most universities are in effect diploma mills. They’re selling the diploma or the degree and not the content. Is that too broad a statement?
Bryan Caplan: Well probably. Diploma mills are a place where they don’t really require much of any work. You just give them 20 bucks. They give you a degree. I don’t think that’s what’s going on at most universities. At most universities, actually a shocking number of people pay the money and then don’t finish it. At diploma mills they’d all be finishing. It’s true that most schools aren’t teaching a lot of useful job skills, but it’s not like they just hand you hand you a piece of paper in exchange for money. Rather, they make you jump through a bunch of hoops, and the hoops are sufficiently numerous and challenging that a lot of students aren’t finished. At lower rank schools, actually most students wind up not finishing, even if they’re going full time.
I would say my story is a lot more pessimistic because it’s saying that you will spend years doing a lot of boring work, and then the only thing you get out of it really is the seal of approval, rather than job skills. At least with a diploma mill, you don’t get much out of it, but you don’t put much into it either.
The Signaling Theory of Education
Bob Zadek: In your book you talk about the signaling effect of having a college degree. A very interesting concept — one that I hadn’t heard about before. I learned of it from you. What’s the signaling effect all about, and how does it work in the context of education.
Bryan Caplan: Think about it like this: there’s two totally different ways you can raise the value of a diamond. One is to get the expert Jim Smith to go and cut it perfectly, making it a great diamond. Another one, though, is to give it to a guy with that little eye piece and he looks at his says, “Oh, it’s flawless, wonderful.” And he puts a sticker on it saying a AAA diamond. Both of these things raise the value of diamonds.
Similarly, for education people usually think about education as pouring useful skills into you and then you’re approved, and then of course employers like you better. That is one story and it’s a genuine part of the story. So, literacy and numeracy are genuinely taught in school and employers do need them, but there’s a lot of other stuff going on — a lot of other teaching of material that you aren’t ever going to use after the final exam and that signaling is where you are getting certified or stamps.
I would say my story is a lot more pessimistic because it’s saying that you will spend years doing a lot of boring work, and then the only thing you get out of it really is the seal of approval, rather than job skills. At least with a diploma mill, you don’t get much out of it, but you don’t put much into it either.
In the book I explore what exactly is it they are certifying or stamping? What is the you signal when you get that degree? I think one of the obvious things is you’re showing that you’re smart — smart people, find it easier to excel in school. Now, you’re also showing you’re hard working, because even the smartest person who’s really lazy isn’t going to be able to finish a degree. Right? The last thing I say is that you are signaling sheer conformity, saying, “Look, I am a person that when you tell me to go and jump doesn’t go to argue with you. I just say ‘how high’.”
Employers need all three of these traits. Right? So even if you’re really smart and hard working, if you just aren’t a team player that’s a problem. These are all ways that people in our society want to show off. School is the main ways that we actually convince employers that we have this trifecta of desirable traits.
Bob Zadek: In learning the thesis of your book, I was trying to sort out where the dual concepts of a degree fits in with a certification. I’m an accountant. I don’t have a license anymore, but I had a CPA license, which means I went through CPA-centric stuff. I studied topics in college and I had practical experience and I took an exam, and without that CPA certificate I would not have been employed by an accounting firm. Now the accounting firm didn’t care one bit whether I took a course in astronomy, which I did because it was easy, or took a course in genetics because it was easy. They only cared about my certificate and about my specific training. So, is a subtext of your book that society is squandering a trillion dollars a year in education — would you support a move towards more specific certifications in specific fields of study?
Asking the question another way, do you feel that society would be better off if there was less money spent on liberal arts education and more money spent on specific jobs skills?
Bryan Caplan: Yes. It is definitely a lot better to pay for someone to learn something useful then to go and study something that they’re never going to need to know again. And I think that’s pretty obvious. In a society where things were more like a CPA certification, I think that would be a big improvement. There are special subfields that work that way — it’s the same thing for actuaries for example. The problem, though, is that in a world where almost everyone needs to get a college degree in order to get a good job, then how do you go and break the mold? How do you go and move to a better system? Anytime someone comes to the new system, the first people in line to do that are trying to take the easy way out — the people that don’t like the system that we have. Unfortunately that looks bad to employers.
The problem, though, is that in a world where almost everyone needs to get a college degree in order to get a good job, then how do you go and break the mold? … A lot of people read my book and say, “Well, if this were really true then someone will just come up with a better and cheaper way,” and I say, “Well, look, you try to come up with a better, cheaper way of showing the world you’re a conformist — find a great new, weird way of showing how conformist you are.”
A lot of people read my book and say, “Well, if this were really true then someone will just come up with a better and cheaper way,” and I say, “Well, look, you try to come up with a better, cheaper way of showing the world you’re a conformist — find a great new, weird way of showing how conformist you are.” There’s a catch 22. The first people in line to do that aren’t going to be conformists. They’re going to be nonconformists. With all of the hundreds of billions dollars of government money on the side of the status quo, it tends to lock us into this very dysfunctional system.
Bob Zadek: I think what you’re saying — I’m struggling to channel an economics professor — is that society has a built in bias which forces government and society to pay for soft, non-job-specific courses, or liberal arts as it often is called, when society gets no benefit. The individual may or may not get a benefit, but that’s very personal to the individual. If everybody signed on to the Caplan approach, would it result in simply much less government money and perhaps individual money being spent on liberal arts? The liberal arts becomes like golf: if you want to learn to play golf, spend your own money — we’re not going to subsidize it. Is learning to play golf the same as learning poetry? Would that be a byproduct if people followed your teaching and your urgings?
Bryan Caplan: Yeah, I think so. Although it’s worth pointing out that the share of college graduates who get a degree in the liberal arts is no longer all that high. There are majors that people don’t think about very much, but are actually a very common, like the communications major. You wouldn’t usually think of communications as liberal arts, but in terms of the labor market, it’s probably as useless as history or poetry or almost anything else. Not only does it not prepare people for a career in the media, but there’s so many people who get communications degrees, and so few jobs in the media that almost inevitably the large majority of communications majors don’t wind up working in anything related to what they studied.
The same probably goes for the undergraduate business degree, which sounds kind of vocational, but people who know it well say, “Nah, not really. It’s just something that we give to people that find economics too hard.” A lot of these majors, whether the liberal arts or something else, are just not really preparing people for any job that are likely to have. Psychology is another one. It’s a very popular major and yet it’s almost impossible to get a job as a psychologist with just a bachelor’s degree. You’ve got to go and get another degree if you want to even counsel people.
Bob Zadek: So in your view, should the role of higher education be purely for preparation for a specific job, profession, vocation and the like? And if anybody wants to get anything else out of higher education, they’re on their own? But taxpayer money should not be used. You wouldn’t complain if somebody chose to spend their own money to learn.
Bryan Caplan: People pretend that they’re really interested in these subjects when actually the real reason [they get a degree] is precisely to look better to employers. So if you actually just wanted to learn about poetry, you can go to Youtube — there’s the internet, there’s tons of stuff, right?
One of the most telling things about higher education is that it’s actually completely free already. If all you want to do is unofficially attend classes, you can just move next to whatever school you want to go to and start going. No one will ever bat an eye, no one will complain. I got my PhD at Princeton. If you just showed up at Princeton classes and started attending no one’s going to stop you. There’s no effort to see whether you’ve paid your money or whether you were accepted. Yet even though anyone can get an official education for free, no one in the country tries to do this. It’s extremely rare to get non-students who just want to take a class for personal enrichment. I think this is very revealing.
People pretend that they’re really interested in these subjects when actually the real reason [they get a degree] is precisely to look better to employers. So if you actually just wanted to learn about poetry, you can go to Youtube — there’s the internet, there’s tons of stuff, right?
Without the official certification, the grades, the diplomas, what you’re doing in order to make yourself impressive to employers, there is almost no demand for this stuff. As a professor it kind of makes me sad to think that people aren’t really curious about this. But I think the honest thing to say is that it doesn’t look like they are very interested.
Higher Education: A Bundle of Questionable Value
Bob Zadek: Is the problem in part that a degree is bundled — that in the courses that one takes in college, some may be quite valuable, and others not? I was an accounting major — those classes were quite valuable. I couldn’t have entered the profession I was in for a while without those courses, and then I took genetics, and astronomy, and psychology and stuff that I really didn’t care about very much at all. But I had to take some nonbusiness courses so I could become “well rounded.” I hated them, cut class, and didn’t learn a thing, but somebody paid for them. So is it a bundling problem that some of education is, of course, valuable because it makes people more productive in society and gets them a job. Is that part of the issue, the bundling of a college education?
Bryan Caplan: Yeah, sure. So if you go and scrutinize what you’re studying, you’re almost sure to be able to find some things that are genuinely useful. But here’s the striking thing: when people go and try to figure out “why does education pay?” — when they go and break it down and say, “Alright, here are the things that seem really useful, here are the things that don’t seem very useful.” Generally they find that the useless stuff pays very well in the labor market too. I spent a lot of work on American high school curriculum, and one big result: foreign languages seem to pay in the labor market right now. Why? Hardly any American jobs actually used them like any other. The obvious story is that you need these foreign languages even to get into college, so if you don’t do that than it holds you back through the rest of your career. If I hadn’t taken Spanish when I was in high school, I simply could not have gone to the University of California Berkeley, because it was an absolute requirement. So I really wouldn’t be talking here today if I hadn’t studied a foreign language that I’ve never actually used professionally. Not even close. I mean the teaching was so poor, how could I?
Bob Zadek: So it is compulsory bundling. You’ve described so much societal irrational behavior. You couldn’t have gotten into Berkeley without studying Spanish. Well, somebody in Berkeley made this utterly irrational decision, perhaps driven by some nod to the fact that in California there are lots of Hispanics and somehow there is a relationship between studying Spanish in high school and succeeding at Berkeley. But you described in that one little story so much irrational behavior — you had to go through this empty ritual of studying Spanish in order to end up becoming an economics professor at George Mason University.
Bryan Caplan: These requirements go back a very long time. In the 19th century there was an idea of a very well-rounded Renaissance man that would be turned out by top schools. As the university system expanded, they basically copied the same model. When people came up with a curriculum they said, “Well, someone should have like three, four years of math, four years of English, three years of foreign language, three years of history and civics,” and so much of it is backwards-looking, where people just keep repeating the requirements of the past. Teachers just teach whatever they were taught by their professors.
You may have heard that the whole idea of universities in earlier centuries was to prepare people for law, medicine, and the ministry, and if you look at the way that modern universities work, they’re not really so different from these 19th-century colleges. We’ve expanded the list of things that you’ll be getting prepared for. The still is sort of the dead hand of the past. It is pretty easy to see the fingerprints all over the system that we’ve got.
Everything I Know About Psychology I Learned After My PhD
Bob Zadek: I’d like to take a caller — Michael, welcome to the show this morning.
Michael: Bob, Bryan — I want to thank you for a great book. I haven’t read it yet, but from what I’ve heard so far, it seems to make a lot of sense. When I was a high school student, I didn’t have a clue as to what I wanted to do, so I did what seemed like seemed like the road of least resistance and I just kept on going on and on with my education. Finally I got a PhD and I’m a clinical psychologist, which I really couldn’t be and thrive without a PhD. So, how would a high school student determine at that point whether it’s better to go out and get a good job? As you say, many of them could do well just going through years of education to get the kind of job that they would really love.
Bryan Caplan: If I were giving advice to an individual, what I always need to ask is, “Well, how well are you doing in high school?” There are people who do very poorly in high school who then blossom in college, but it’s very rare. Whenever I’m giving actual educational counseling I just say, “Well look, the best predictor of the future is the past, so if you’ve been doing really well in high school then it’s probably going to work out for you if you keep going on to college.” On the other hand, if you’ve been struggling in high school or you just don’t like school, then I would recommend looking for something else to do because your odds of college working out for you are very low.
Michael: No, I’m thinking there are some careers you really couldn’t get exposed to, like being a clinical psychologist. I didn’t get exposed to that as a high school student. But I didn’t do well in school at all. I didn’t like school. So another quality to get a PhD is just stick-to-itiveness. If you’re persistent and you’re willing to sit and read books and take exams, then that could be a good predictor of being successful in school.
Bryan Caplan: Normally if you have those then you’re doing well in high school. My guess is that if you have a PhD you are doing very well in high school. PhDs tend to say “I was terrible” when really what they mean is they were were getting B+’s — something that’s common. But in terms of what could an alternate system be like, I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t have an apprenticeship system where people are learning to actually be clinical psychologists, starting in high school. Like why couldn’t you be an apprentice in the office? Someone is already doing it, and you could learn it by doing. My best guess, tell me if I’m wrong, is that actually a lot of what you do, you learn by doing? Is that true?
Michael: Oh, just about everything I learned out of school, not in school.
Bryan Caplan: And you have a PhD and spend years in school, which is kind of crazy when you think about it — you can be in school for so many years and yet it’s when you’re finished that you actually start learning the real stuff.
Michael: Exactly. I learned more about history for my book club than from my history classes.
Is Education Necessary for a Healthy Democracy?
Bob Zadek: Thanks for the call this morning. And Bryan, a couple of followup questions. First, the Founders, of course, were committed to an educated population. Democracy was a big experiment and they believed that without an educated electorate (it’s interesting how we go back to the myth of the rational voter) — a wise and educated electorate was essential for the success of democracy. Is your position at variance with that strongly held belief of our founders?
Bryan Caplan: Well, I guess I would just step back and say what do you think about the democracy we’ve got? If you think it’s okay then I say that they’re just wrong, because the electorate is not well informed at all. Whenever you give the public any test of civics or history — even very easy questions — public performance is terrible. You might say, kind of like me that, “Yeah, well the public current hardly knows anything and that’s why things don’t work very well.”
For democracy to get good results, the public would need to know a whole lot about not just history and civics, you need to know economics and science and then, what’s wrong with the world? Well, the public doesn’t know this stuff. The public’s knowledge is negligible.
Now, how can I be so critical of the teaching of these subjects if I think it’s so important? The answer is, people study these subjects for years right now and yet they know next to nothing. So it looks like it’s just really hard to actually teach these subjects — we’re just really bad at doing it. I have thought about other things you could do. A much better use of taxpayer money would be if every year there was a test of your knowledge, and if you get a good score, you got some money, right? This is a way to encourage people, first of all, to learn the material — whichever way works best — but also it’s a great reason for people to try to remember whatever they’ve learned, because you can keep retaking the test every year.
One of the basic problems with all of education is that people forget most of what they learned after the test is done. And yet if you want people to be good voters, it doesn’t do for them to learn civics in high school and then forget it afterwards. What good is that? By the way, even if the tests were clinically biased, I’d say that just being able to get a good score on a biased test says something. It says you can understand things well enough to give people the answers they’re looking for, which is itself a pretty good kind of knowledge when you think about it.
Bob Zadek: You just really tickled my imagination. There is a phrase in economics called human capital — people spending money to make themselves better people, because it pays off in the long run. If the government spent money on rewarding people who have become educated rather than spending money on education, an individual would pick courses, not for the money, but simply because they are curious — poetry or learning golf or something like that — or they might choose to be smarter because they get rewarded. So the government still would be spending money, but would be spending money on very tangible or at least far more measurable results. You are rewarding people who become better contributors to society and better citizens. There’ll be a huge political component —in what they have to be smart, and what defines what they know or not — but the concept is fascinating. Light bulbs went off and I found myself getting intrigued.
Bryan Caplan: Yeah, that’s right. One of the key flaws of education is that people generally forget whatever material they aren’t using, and actually in my book I put a lot of effort into tracking down studies of what American adults actually know.
Usually what we do when we want to measure knowledge and learning is we look at the final exam or like an exit exam for school. And that’s a very bad measure just because we know that people forget a lot of stuff. So I looked at whatever I could find on what adults actually know and again, in terms of understanding the world, you figure that employers would reward you for what for what you actually know now, not for what you used to know, unless of course what you’re trying to do is just impress them. Right? So if I say I used to know engineering, but now I don’t, somebody who wants an engineer says, “Yeah, well that doesn’t really help very much,” but on the other hand, if you say, “Look, hey, I got like an A+ in European history,” it’s like, “Well, he could get that good grade then, I don’t really care if you know any history, but I bet that you could learn something else that I do want you to know.”
Even when you study stuff that you’re not going to use, it’s a great way of convincing your employer that you’re good at learning stuff. So much of what’s going on is that people are getting awarded, not for actual knowledge, but just for persuasion for saying, “Hey, look, if I could learn this other stuff, I could probably learn how to be a good secretary for you, so give me a chance.”
The Swiss Model: Apprenticeships in the 21st Century
Bob Zadek: I suspect that the overwhelming majority of our listeners this morning and on the podcast are nodding quietly in agreement that so much of what they were compelled to learn, they have forgotten maybe the moment after the final exam. On the societal waste of money, you mentioned a trillion dollars a year for education. Add that up over a whole number of years, and the money we have wasted in force feeding useless knowledge with no benefit to the individual or to society, other than the sheepskin — the seal of approval — is astonishing.
You have to scratch your head and say, “Oh my God, how did we get here?” Are there other countries that do it better, that you can hold out as a Lodestar? As as something aspirational that we can at least look to, to think about as a better way to do education?
Bryan Caplan: My favorite one is Switzerland. Actually in Switzerland, only about 10 percent of people aregoing to college right now, but they have got a fantastic system of vocational training for young people, and if you go there, you know it is one of the most skilled countries in the world. People know how to do their job. Anything. People just seem overqualified for what they’re doing, but it’s basically very practical and they just try to prepare people for the future lives, and make them into independent and capable adults.
There’s almost no underclass there. There isn’t really the same big chunk of the population where they just don’t work and where there’s dependence upon the government. There’s always a little bit of that, but it’s just this is a very different system. For kids that just don’t like school they say, “Well you don’t like school — well a lot of people don’t, let’s go and teach you how to be a woodworker or a steelworker, or teach you to be a train conductor.” There are so many different options that you can consider.
By the way, on the audience nodding in agreement, I hope so. Although I’ve always found that, people will have like a Stockholm Syndrome of education, where even if their own personal experience was bad, they still want to go and defend the system and say how great it is.
There’s sort of a standard list of arguments people will use. One of the big ones that teachers love to repeat to their students is, “Look, sure you’re not going to go and use your knowledge of World War I on the job, but I taught you how to think, right? You are learning how to learn here. Right?”
This sounds really good, but in the case against education, I go and review all the work in educational psychology where they actually try to measure these subtle indirect effects — learning how to learn, that kind of thing. Normally, educational psychologists come away and say, “Well, we really wanted to believe there was a lot of learning how to learn, but we can’t actually find it in the data.” It seems like it’s mostly wishful thinking. And if you’re lucky, students learn exactly what you teach them — and that’s a good scenario. And then the idea that they’re learning all kinds of other extra skills that aren’t even on the test — this is wrong, it’s just waste of time.
Bob Zadek: When I graduated college, I took 120 hours and the only courses that ever benefited me were the courses I took in my then-profession of accounting. There was no benefit from any other course. So 90 percent of the money I spent was money down the drain.
Bryan Caplan: We’ve got a system where the person that doesn’t jump through even the most meaningless of hoops looks bad, because there’s so much pressure on people to do it.
An Aside on Population
Bob Zadek: We have one more caller. Welcome to the show this morning. What’s on your mind?
Caller: Your latest shows been been really, really good. There was something said about having a selfish reason for having more kids, and that one I am really opposed to. We have overpopulation syndrome. I can remember from high school chemistry, where you had a thing called Brownian kinetic theory, where you compress a bunch of gas, and the molecules are striking each other faster and faster exponentially. I think that’s what we have in the world today. Having a population that is static I think would be really, really beneficial.
Bob Zadek: As they say — off message — since the topic this morning is education. So Bryan, can you just respond to that even, even though it’s off message this morning?
Bryan Caplan: Sure. So there are definitely a bunch of bad things about population that are heavily discussed — things like causing congestion and so on — but there’s also a ton of really great things about population that people hardly ever talk about. Most obviously, higher populations are more creative. You have a lot more innovation that comes out of larger populations, so we can just think about deleting half the names from your music collection, or half the directors of the movies that you like or half the inventions, right? So if you think about this then you realize that there is this enormous benefit of a higher population — especially because one idea can actually be enjoyed by everyone on earth. So in my other book, *Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids,* I spent a chapter going over all these neglected great things about higher population, which when you really add them up, far outweigh the bad for the foreseeable future.
Bob Zadek: Bryan, would you have written the book if government was not spending a dime on education? If all of the expenditures were simply students buying education as if they were buying a car or a vacation, if it was simply something they bought because there was a benefit or they would enjoy it. Is the issue who’s paying or is it more basic than that?
Bryan Caplan: Intellectually, I think the topic’s interesting whether or not government is paying, but I wouldn’t have written the book if government we’re not pouring all this money on it because then it wouldn’t be a very important topic. So when I write a book, I like to get a topic where it’s intellectually interesting but also important. If government weren’t going and spending all this money, then I don’t think it would be a big deal. So I probably would not have written the book then.
Bob Zadek: So your problem is the government is in effect spending money, which benefits only the sellers — not much benefit to the customers, the students, and far less benefit to society. One would think that if government is going to be spending money, there ought to be what is called a public good, a societal benefit. Just as society didn’t benefit from the fact that I learned to jump on the trampoline, a society doesn’t benefit very much from students learning the liberal arts part of an education. It sounds like the system would be far more economically sound if higher education were initially directly related to creating productive members of society, either more intelligent voter, as Bryan has said is impossible in his book, The Myth of the Rational Voter, or least those who can be productive in producing and increasing their own and societal wealth. So, we are very locked into this system and it is very difficult to overcome. Bryan’s book is incredible. It is quite provocative and perhaps will move us down the road.
Bryan, what’s your next book and how can people follow your writings?
Bryan Caplan: You can get all my books on Amazon. The Case Against Higher Education is only 20 bucks. I’ve got almost everything I’ve written up on my website, BCaplan.com, or on my blog, which is EconLog.org. My next book is going to be a nonfiction graphic novel on immigration. It’s called *All Roads Lead to Open Borders* and it’s in collaboration with my favorite web cartoonist in the world, Zach Weinersmith, of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. That should be out next year.
Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal - Astrobiologywww.smbc-comics.com
Bob Zadek: And tell us about EconLog. We have about 30 seconds,
Bryan Caplan: It’s a blog on economics and liberty and together with my co-bloggers, David Henderson, and Scott Sumner, we write about all the interesting stuff
Bob Zadek: Bryan, thanks for giving us a valuable hour of your Sunday morning. Thanks so much for listening. We’ll be back again next Sunday with ideas not attitude.
Bryan Caplan: My pleasure, Bob.