Book Dismissing Value of College Marred by Excess Data

Published March 13, 2018

In his explosive new book, The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money, author Bryan Caplan argues the primary function of education today is not to enhance students’ skills but to certify their intelligence, work ethic, and conformity—in other words, as Caplan says, to signal the qualities of a good employee.

Although the author and I both attended and enjoyed Princeton University and went on to jobs we love (Caplan is a professor at George Mason University), he argues we are among a lucky few. Caplan maintains the vast majority of students are bored and care little for what they learn if they are not planning to be doctors, lawyers, or engineers.

There are 85 pages of notes and references supporting hundreds of studies Caplan details to convince the reader of his premise. Many of the sources, however, conflict with each other. The tedium of following Caplan through statistic after statistic makes the reader hopeful of a final summary before being buried under still more data. Unfortunately, this can be what many academics think is required of them.

Rightly Criticizes Govt. Education

Caplan criticizes public education in general, and the book’s dedication states his two sons are homeschooled. Caplan goes on to advocate three major policy changes for government-supported education at all levels. The first is greater educational austerity. Caplan says government should cut education funding sharply because the current system supports an unnecessary rat race to obtain wasteful higher education degrees.

Second, in line with just about everyone in the education field today, Caplan expresses the need for more vocational programs, arguing practical skills are more valuable than most of the material currently taught in colleges. Caplan does make a very strong though biased case for this premise. He also, somewhat radically by his own admission, argues government should get completely out of the education business at all academic levels and allow fees and charities to finance education.

‘College Is a Joke’

Caplan’s primary argument throughout the book is most of a college education has the primary benefit of signaling to others an individual has a variety of good qualities, regardless of whether he or she does in fact have them. I estimate he uses the word “signaling” more than 50 times in the book. Concurrently, however, he says he is not trying to dissuade readers from pursuing additional formal education. In fact, he writes, “If you single-mindedly focused on a graduate’s paychecks, education turns lead into gold.”

Meanwhile, Caplan offers statistics showing most students entirely forget what they learn in the U.S. average of two years of high school language classes, and only 13 percent of Americans are proficient in basic literacy and numeracy. Acknowledging his opponents’ argument that “College molds character compared to sitting in your basement playing video games,” Caplan says the relevant alternative “is a full-time job, and compared to that, college is a joke.”

Money for Nothing?

Caplan facetiously labels a section of his book “The Handsome Rewards of Useless Education,” stating, “In 2011, holders of advanced degrees made almost three times as much as [money] high school dropouts. Each step up the educational ladder seems to count.”

I think even a high school dropout would have known that bit of trivia, but Caplan supports it with numerous studies, citing research documenting incomes for people at every level of the educational ladder. Each time, he largely dismisses the knowledge gained and tells the reader the money arrives because education levels “signal” things unrelated to what the student learned.

Caplan cites several surprising studies indicating one’s choice of a college is less important than most people think. What you study appears to be more important than where you study, he states. “While sending your child to Harvard appears to be a good investment, sending him to your local state university to major in engineering, take lots of math, and get a high GPA is an even better investment,” Caplan writes.

Against Indoctrination

Caplan pulls no punches politically. He is a dedicated libertarian who decries leftist universities taking pains to indoctrinate today’s college students in the ways of socialism and ills of capitalism. This may be the best reason to avoid college today.

Caplan supports this very sound premise with nearly 50 pages of philosophy at the end of the book. He argues uninspired teachers at the college level deserve much of the blame for students not maximizing the opportunity for a useful education.

Fascinating and Depressing

For the academic in me, Caplan’s book is fascinating but also depressing. Who wants to believe the education value of college is insignificant other than the money it gets a graduate in the job market? I reject that premise, and I doubt this book will convince anyone desiring a college education not to pursue one.

As a recovering academic, I mined the book for fascinating information I had not previously seen. Caplan could have made a much stronger case with a book half as long. Often, as most of us have learned, less can be more.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]is science director at The Heartland Institute.