Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The Case Against Education

As a society, we spend a lot of money on education. However, the benefits received are fleeting. Looking at the numbers in isolation, it appears that each year of education provides a significant increase in lifetime earnings. However, diving deeper into the data, the results are much less compelling. Instead of a gradual increase based on years of education, the data shows huge increases at graduation and much smaller increases per year of education. This helps support the thesis that education works primarily as a signalling mechanism. A degree shows that somebody is intelligent and conforms to societal norms. The actual learning is less important. (And many of the things learned in school are never used in the workforce.) Correcting for ability further amplifies the point. When poor students get more education, they don't see the bump that an excellent student would see after completing the same level of education.
We also must consider the cost side of the education equation. Time spent in school is time that is not spent in workforce. There is also the expense of providing the education. This is born by society in the case of public education, though often shared by the individual student in higher education. Is the payoff worth it? For an individual, the ability to signal that you are a capable employee may be worth it. However, signalling just differentiates people and provides no overall benefit for society. We would generally be better off if people obtained only the appropriate education needed for their job.
Vocational education is perhaps the one exception. It gets people trained in needed schools that can be immediately applicable, and does not waste time on as many useless classes. It seems in a quest to make college available for all, we make it worse for people that do not want college. They would have been better off with legitimate training for a job they could do, rather than stuck with more classes they do not like. (You could even argue that many of the tech jobs of today are actually modern "blue collar" vocational jobs.)
Right now education is in a "bubble". There is too much money sloshing in there and a societal impression that it is "good" (regardless of the political views or evidence.) This leads to colossal waste of money and high price inflation. Simple solutions would be to just have the government get out of the education business. The easiest fix would be to stop subsidizing student loans. In fact, do away with them altogether. If financial institutions do not accept the risk of a student, they probably should not be spending that money in school. Since much of the benefit of higher education is "signalling", simply making it more difficult for people to attend college will make college less important. (If everyone has a BA, a masters is needed to set you apart. If everyone just has a high school diploma, a BA would sufficiently set you apart.) Online education is available today that could provide the actual "learning" if desired.
Current events help to further prove his thesis. People are paying half a million dollars to get their kids into the desired universities. (Some of these are not even the "Top Tier Ivies", but second tier selective schools.) There is seen great value in attending schools and getting a degree. You could view almost an entire degree's worth of classes from the most prestigious universities online for free. You could even wander into classes at most college and attend the lectures without objection. In spite of this, it is the degree that really counts, not the learning. This knowledge should instruct policy.
Caplan presents a very compelling thesis. Education is able to draw huge amounts of funding and public support by presenting itself as a job training program. However, it actually functions more like a "private club", providing the connections and membership that employers want. The biggest fault is that he provides too much evidence. It feels that the same argument is made from many different angles. Perhaps the best version of the argument is a "dialog" he has with many the different education viewpoints. It does present hard lessons for society. Credential inflation merely requires people to have more education, not for them to be more educated.

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