The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money

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The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money. Bryan Caplan. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.


According to Caplan, an economist professor at George Mason University, education is primarily about signaling: information about a person’s productivity is signaled to an employer by what sort of degree and certification a prospective employee possesses. While admitting that all education is not about signaling, Caplan argues a significant fraction of education is, somewhere between 50%-80%. Even though there is a disconnect between a school’s curriculum and the skills required in the job market, signaling provides employers a sense of a person’s intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity to be good workers. Employers want workers who learn quickly and deeply, labor until the job is done right, and obey superiors and cooperate with teammates. Employers reward a “useless” education because a person’s degree signals his or her capacity to be a good worker.

In evaluating the usefulness of education to make it better match the skills required for the job market, Caplan emphasizes literary and numeracy (specifically statistics) over the sciences, social sciences, arts, humanities, and vocational training. Using data from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, Caplan reveals under a third of college graduates have the levels of literacy and numeracy expected of college freshmen. Ignorance about civics, history, science, and foreign language is even greater. To remedy this situation, Caplan calls for eliminating general education in high school and college and emphasize content specialization where students are provided a well-defined goal, motivated to improve, receive constant feedback, and provided ample opportunities for repetition and refinements. People become better at their jobs by doing it and striving to be better.

Yet why does a college graduate earn significantly more on average than a high school graduate? Because employers must infer a person’s skill from his or her resume, assuming there is a correlation between education and job market skills. This “ability bias” in signaling manifests itself in the major selected (engineering and finance are paid the most) and gender (men make more than women) with the private sector willing to pay more for education than the public sector. For Caplan, the credentialing inflation of education only exacerbates the mismatch between what is being taught and what the job market needs.

The practical advice Caplan gives is 1) to finish high school; 2) go to college if you’re a strong student who wants to major in subjects like engineering or finance; and 3) do not obtain a master’s degree unless “the stars align” (e.g.,  the return for an excellent student in graduate school is only 2.6% so go if it is free). Caplan reaches these conclusions by adopting “a selfish return” towards education, seeing what utilitarian benefits students will receive if they enroll and complete college (interestingly, finding a spouse with a high salary is one of the reasons Caplan cites). Employment, health, and job satisfaction are “selfish” reasons for one to enter college; economic growth, democratic participation, and stable families are the social ones.

Caplan concludes by cutting education: removing the humanities, social sciences, and arts from the curriculum in high school and college; cutting subsidies for college tuition; and eliminating state funding in high school and beyond. Caplan also dismisses the idea that online education will do any better than traditional education in creating a skilled workforce and instead advocates a return to vocational education where skills needed in the labor market are created. These reforms will make the American education system more efficient and effective in serving the needs of employers in the marketplace.

The Case Against Education reflects today’s public attitude towards education with the rise of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) at the expense of the humanities and social sciences and viewing education narrowly as economic utilitarianism. Given rising tuition and student debt, a “selfish return” towards education is understandable. Strangely, for such a data-driven book, it must be noted that Caplan fails to take into account the increase in administrative staff and salaries in higher education as well as the increasingly amount of time and money spent on compliance and accreditation.

But ultimately it an economist’s account of education that suffers from the limitations of that discipline where it views human nature only as homo economicus. Hence, the straw men that Caplan knocks down in chapter nine where he criticizes those who claim that education is “good for the soul” (e.g., the death of high culture today). But what is a soul for an economist? And how does one convey such a thing to one who dismisses it as “romantic notions”? This is not to suggest that Caplan’s criticisms of high and college education are wrong – in fact, I agree with all of them – but it does raise questions about his prescriptions. Education, particularly higher education, may not be for everyone, but for those who can, it may mean something more than accumulating just more for their own material lives.

Lee Trepanier

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Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science and University Pre-Law Advisor at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. He is author and editor of several books and also is the editor of VoegelinView (2016-present) and editor of Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film (2013-present).