Too Many Americans Are Going to College

(Larry Ye/Dreamstime)
An economist makes a powerful case against education.

Suppose you always wanted to date tall and good-looking people, and believe yourself to be tall and good-looking too. There’s a club in your city called Lucky’s where all the tall and good-looking people go, so you show up there. But you can’t get in. The bouncer stops you.

“Only tall and good-looking people are allowed in.”

“I’m tall and good-looking, though.”

“Only tall and good-looking people with the proper credentials.” At this point, as he’s letting in another batch of the long and luscious, you notice that most of them are presenting the bouncer with a fancy piece of paper that says, “100% certified tall and good-looking.”

Aha, you say. I need that fancy paper. You go to the marketplace and find a confusing system of stalls and shops selling various kinds of fancy paper. Some of them won’t even look at you. Finally you notice a guy beckoning from an alley: “Psst. Tall-and-good-looking credentials right here.”

“How much?” you say.

“Only $60,000,” he says. “Plus four years of your life. Deal?”

You smell something fishy. And yet you go ahead with it. You take out loans. You spend four years of your life doing baffling chores. And you get your tall-and-good-looking credential. But when you take it back to the club, the bouncer just sneers at you. “We don’t accept credentials from this place.”

At this point you catch a glimpse of your reflection in someone’s car window. And you realize you’re 4′11″ and look like the Joker after he fell into a vat of acid. The guy you owe $60,000 is laughing.

That’s pretty much how college works. Want to join the lucky ones in Club Upper Middle Class? Be smart and/or hard-working. And if you’re neither smart nor hard-working, the fact that most of the people who make it to the upper middle class did indeed obtain a college degree identifying them as smart and/or hard-working should be irrelevant to you. All the credentials in the world aren’t going to fool the bouncers who guard the doorway of the club. These bouncers are employers. And they don’t care about your feelings. Just as bouncers want people who will pretty up the place, employers want people who will add value to their company. If you can’t provide it, they’ll tell you to take a hike.

But many young Americans haven’t caught on to this. Economist Bryan Caplan of George Mason University has crunched the data for years from every angle and argues devastatingly in a piece in The Atlantic (adapted from his forthcoming book The Case Against Education) that college is, for many of those who go there, a boondoggle. Forty-five percent of those who enter college fail to graduate within five years. If you are in the bottom 25 percent of your high-school class, you are not going to make it through college. It’s much worse than a waste of time. It’s a waste of money, perhaps a great deal of it. If, at age 22, with a college degree, you settle in for a career in retail that doesn’t require a college degree, laden with student loans, you’d have been much better off if you had started your career four years earlier instead of spending four years puzzling over T. S. Eliot, post-revolutionary Africa, and trigonometry.

An even better idea for those who aren’t well-suited for college: Go to the kind of school that actually teaches you a job — i.e., a vocational school, where students stay engaged by doing things and learning in the process — rather than dozing your way through a lecture. Learn to be an electrician or a plumber and you might even lose interest in Club Upper Middle Class. You’ll be warmly welcomed at Club Successful Working Class, and you may find the people who go there more fun to talk to anyway.

As Caplan notes, college hardly ever teaches you usable job skills. This is because colleges still work largely the way the first ones were set up in the 18th century (or, in the case of Harvard, the 17th). They weren’t conceived as job-prep programs. They were set up as finishing schools for men — to make them better, more well-rounded people before they went on to the clergy, or the law, or the family business.

Having a college degree doesn’t exactly prove intelligence. A survey from 2003 showed that more than two-thirds of college graduates failed to demonstrate proficiency in a very basic test of literacy. “The ignorance it revealed is mind-numbing,” writes Caplan, who after many years of teaching at a respected university has this to say about students in general: “The vast majority are philistines.” Caplan isn’t interested in teaching students how to pass his tests; he wants them to pass life. He wants them to learn how to think, to see the broader implications of specific examples. They don’t. “In a good class, four test-takers out of 40 demonstrate true economic understanding,” he writes.

College is a part-time gig.

Fifty years ago, Caplan notes, the average student spent 40 hours on studying alone. These days students log 27 hours on all academics, including classes. College is a part-time gig. The main thing students are up to, surveys reveal, is having a good time. Why should they do otherwise when GPAs keep creeping up? The mean GPA is now 3.2. So students are doing very little and being told they’re practically perfect. This is America’s big job-prep program?

So why do college graduates make so much more money than non-graduates? As Caplan put it on the invaluable EconTalk podcast, “The whole educational process filters out the people who wouldn’t have been very good workers. So people who are lower intelligence, lower in work ethic, lower in conformity — those people tend to not do very well in school. They drop out. They get bad grades. And that’s why the labor market cares. It’s not that the school actually transforms you to a good worker from a bad worker. It’s that the schooling, the school puts a little sticker on your head — you know, Grade A.”

If your solution is to churn out more Grade A stickers by increasing federal loans and subsidies, you’re just inviting employers to apply some other filtering mechanism, such as a graduate degree. Colleges will keep making it easier and easier for students, because students are paying them. Employers, however, will continue to be selective, because if they take you on, they are paying you.


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