Sarah Carris the editor of the Teacher Project, an education reporting fellowship at Columbia Journalism School, and the author of “Hope Against Hope,” which tells the story of New Orleans schools.
Over the past two decades, a “college for all” mantra has overtaken the school reform movement, with education leaders across the country committing themselves to helping more low-income, first-generation college students make it through four-year universities. In schools across the country, teachers coat hallways with college banners, take children as young as middle school on college tours and prep even elementary-age youngsters with chants like “We get the knowledge to go to college!”
Educators are motivated by studies that consistently show the economic payoff of a college degree: People with a bachelor’s degree earn 84 percent more than those with a high school diploma, according to a report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. Armed with such figures, there is indeed a compelling case to be made for expanding access to college education as a key — if not the key — component in the fight against entrenched economic inequality in the United States.
[Revolutionizing the university for the digital era]
Balderdash, argues Bryan Caplan, a professor of economics at George Mason University and a self-proclaimed libertarian. In “The Case Against Education,” he writes that “government should stop using tax dollars to fund education of any kind.” All schools — primary, secondary and university level alike — should be funded solely by fees and private charity. Pell grants, the federal subsidies that help millions of low-income students afford college, should be cut.
Caplan is also the author of “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids,” in which he argues that nature matters more than nurture in child rearing — meaning parents needn’t work nearly so hard to groom their kids into model students and citizens.
Caplan’s bold and provocative conclusion in “The Case Against Education” is based on a raft of statistics, which he presents ad nauseam throughout the book. His argument hinges on the idea that the main value of education, and particularly more-advanced degrees, comes not from helping prepare us to be better citizens, thinkers and workers but from what’s known as “educational signaling”: Education and degrees help ratify preexisting traits such as persistence, intelligence and conformity to social norms. “Conventional education mostly helps students by raising their status,” he writes.
On a whole host of measures — income, job satisfaction, happiness, health — Caplan offers his own estimates for how much education matters, nearly always concluding that it’s far less beneficial than conventional wisdom, or existing research, would have us believe.
For instance, when computing education’s benefits vis-a-vis health, he cites a host of reasons the effect may not be so great as presumed. More years of education may indeed correlate to longer life expectancy, as documented in numerous studies, he writes. But perhaps that’s partly because of reverse causation: poor health impeding educational progress rather than educational progress promoting good health. In the end, he concludes with a breezy confidence that “my best guess is that the true health benefit of a year of education is somewhere between nothing and .02 steps on a four-step scale.”
Caplan is more optimistic about vocational than academic education, arguing that it does more to improve high school graduation rates, raise income and reduce unemployment. Yet even improved or expanded technical training is not worth an outlay of taxpayer money. In his view, “Government should get out of the way and take stock of all the opportunities the labor market provides.” That includes reinstating child labor.
For someone who chafes at Caplan’s often-specious reasoning and disagrees with most of his conclusions, there is still something refreshing about the cheeky questions he raises about the role of vocational education, the value of college, and the mismatch between educational offerings and job opportunities. Moreover, the conversation about education is often dominated by debates over governance: who should run schools and control the purse strings. Even the debate over the Common Core curricular standards centered less on what should be taught than on perceived (or misperceived) federal intrusion into states’ and districts’ jurisdiction over their schools: the perennial question of who has control.
Caplan eschews such debates over who should run schools, dismissing the public funding for private schools (a.k.a. vouchers) that many libertarians champion as an insufficient tweak to a badly broken system. Instead, he focuses his scrutiny on what students learn in school, and his own estimates of how much value it brings to them and to society at large. Caplan’s intriguing line of inquiry could, in different hands, lead to a truly constructive debate — and possible reckoning.
But in addition to his offering opinion under the guise of data, there are two major fallacies and dangers to Caplan’s argument, both relating to equality.
First, his analysis treats education and teachers as a monolith — that is to say, pretty universally a waste of time and money. He makes significant distinctions only when it comes to subject areas, deriding the humanities as “Mickey Mouse” majors, for instance.
With this largely macro lens, he misses an important opportunity to scrutinize the startling gaps in educational quality across states, districts, institutions, schools and teachers. Had he drilled down to compare the quality of education — and attendant student and societal outcomes — in a small group of high schools of varying quality, for instance, we might get a very different view of both the role of “signaling” and the state of the American education system.
[Are colleges preparing students for the automated future of work?]
That’s not the mission of a man who declares that “all things considered, I favor full separation of school and state.” Nor is it his mission to fully consider the impact of his not-so-modest proposals on the country’s poorest citizens — the kinds of people who would never be able to afford an education if public funding of all kinds disappeared. Caplan fleetingly addresses what he calls “our commitment as a society to our least fortunate members” over the course of two out of nearly 300 pages.
He concludes that covering the cost of education for all is like covering the cost of everyone’s diamond wedding rings — a subsidy that diminishes the value of a good by making it universally accessible. “To detect subsidies’ downside for social justice, you must dwell on the opportunities the poor have lost because of credential inflation. When most Americans didn’t finish high school, dropouts faced little stigma in the labor market.”
As in “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids,” his argument seems to hinge on a dangerous faith in biological determinism that borders on a defense of institutionalized classism. In the unlikely event that it’s embraced (I worry more that by entering the mainstream, his ideas may subtly and incrementally push the debate in the wrong direction), his proposal would transform an admittedly deeply unequal society into a serfdom — more permanently consigning low-income citizens to minimum-wage jobs that require next to no literacy or numeracy skills. Or no jobs at all.
“The Case Against Education” raises some important questions, but beyond that it offers little more than dangerous, extravagant ideology masking as creative data analysis.
The Case against Education
Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money
By Bryan Caplan
Princeton. 395 pp. $29.95
For many people, college can be a waste of time and money. Too many people are going to college because they believe a great American myth: college is for everyone and happiness and wealth depend on a college degree.
Despite the enormous financial burdens imposed by college tuition and room and board, along with the fact that many students take six years to “complete” a four-year program and then have trouble finding a job, the idea persists that parents who have a student at a university have bragging rights. These bragging rights come from the reputations of institutions such as Duke, Stanford, Notre Dame, and many high-caliber state universities. These are the academic elitists. They are proud of themselves and their institutions, as well they should be.
But seriously, should marginally motivated students with mediocre achievement skills go in debt to the tune of $120,000 for tuition loans and the cost of leaving the workforce for 4 to 5 years?
College works best for students with intelligence scores placing them in the top 30% of the general population. And students seeking a college education need more than high IQ numbers. Roy Baumeister, PhD, social psychology professor emeritus at Florida State University is co-author with John Tierney of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Strength. According to Baumeister and Tierney, will power and self-control are necessary for success. Types of self-control include intellectual, emotional, performance, and impulse control. They are all necessary for advanced academic studies.
It takes effort and a stable early environment to teach self-control. This is why children raised by single parents may not do as well in life. Kids from two-parent homes get better grades, are healthier, and have greater emotional stability. Willpower, Rediscovering the Greatest Strength, Penguin Press, 2011.
Self-control is partly hereditary, but also requires stability and monitoring. Again, students from upper-middle class families may have an advantage here. It is possible for someone to have a high IQ score, but less self-control, and I might add—less creativity. And some may have a lower IQ score, but possess tremendous willpower and self-control. Ronald Alsop “Gotta Have It Now,” Notre Dame Magazine, Winter, 2011-12.
There are some individuals who are not only academically bright, but have high aptitude for technical and creative thinking. These folks will do very well in the university setting and go on to become professors, lawyers, physicians, engineers, and research scientists. But high school students majoring in career studies will hold their own against many college graduates and, in fact, may create more wealth than college graduates, including the professions mentioned above. And they will get there a lot sooner.
Some academically inclined students attend college to immerse themselves in the humanities. This is a good thing, but it’s not for everyone. If we go back to psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, surely getting a job comes before self-actualization.
“Right-brain,” practically-minded students can have bragging rights too, if we permit that to happen. A February, 2013 report by Jon Marcus of the Hechinger Institute (a service of CNN, Fortune, and Money) indicates that a graduate with an associate degree from a community college started work as a computer networking engineer at a local TV station making about $50,000 a year. That is 15% higher than the average starting salary for college graduates—not only from community colleges, but for bachelor’s degree holders from four-year universities.
An interesting video developed by Kevin Fleming @Telosis.com, demonstrates the 1, 2, 7 formula, which Fleming claims is as true today as it was in 1950. For every job requiring a master’s degree or above there will be two jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree and seven jobs for those with career skills.
Fleming’s research shows that the average earnings range for the associate of arts degree is $27,000 to $68,000 whereas a business manager with a bachelor’s degree falls in the range of $34,000 to $97,000. But one must also take into account skills and abilities. The most accomplished individuals with an associate of arts degree can reach $86,000, while the bottom range of bachelors’ degree manager is $56,000. And those choosing career education avoid at least $100,000 in lost wages and college debt.
As pointed out in my new book, The Elephant in the Classroom, (How Our Fear of the Truth Hurts Kids and How Every Student Can Succeed) the 25% to 30% of college graduates who can really benefit financially from that education, especially those majoring in finance, engineering, accounting, etc. are pulling up the overall average earnings for college graduates. These statistics utilize a mean average to compare university and career students, but they need to use a modal average, which would show the average income of most college graduates.
College offers many benefits that can’t be measured by financial costs, but unless the student has high academic ability, self-control, motivation and the ability to concentrate, college can be a frustrating and disappointing choice. The majority of high school students today will benefit most from career education rather than college-prep courses. Unfortunately, the myth of college for everyone prevents them from getting the career courses they need, leading to frustration and academic failure.