It’s Time To Make the Case Against Going to College

It’s not often that one comes across a passionate and well-argued case against higher education written by a university Professor, but that’s exactly what’s in the new issue of The Atlantic. Bryan Caplan, an economist at Georg Mason University, presents a scathing critique of the current college educational model, and his essay should be read by every college president and professor in America.

Caplan’s argument rests on four broad claims:

  1. College is not about education but about signaling labor markets
  2. College students get very little lasting value from their college investment
  3. Too many people are going to college
  4. Vocational education is a much better social investment than pushing all kids into college

His first argument, though not original, is Kaplan’s strongest. To labor markets, he argues, a college education per se is of little value. A college degree, on the other hand, is valuable not because of what one has learned but because of what it signals to would-be employers, namely that someone has the intelligence and discipline needed to complete an often tedious course of study. Kaplan backs up this claim with a neat data point, which is that completing one, two or even three years of college has only a small impact on earnings. In other words, one would expect that someone who completes 3/4 of college would get 3/4 of the wage benefit, which is not the case. Indeed, Kaplan notes that completing senior year of college “brings more than twice the pay increase of freshman, sophomore, and junior year combined.” Kaplan adds, tongue in cheek, that “unless colleges delay job training until the very end, signaling is the only explanation.”

Turning to his second point, Kaplan notes that the reason for the disconnect between college education and market value is that college curricula are designed by people who are almost completely ignorant of what the typical business workplace is like. On this point, he’s quite right. The typical PhD gets a job through a strange process of specialist conferences and back-channel lobbying which is nothing like how most regular people find work. College professorships are based on educational credentials, publishing history and institutional demographics and not on anything that looks like getting a entry-level manager job at GE or Microsoft. Our higher education-to-work relationship is almost comically detached and something no one would ever design intentionally in 2018. Furthermore, Kaplan notes, even the best students at the best schools rarely benefit from what they actually study:

In 2003, the United States Department of Education gave about 18,000 Americans the National Assessment of Adult Literacy. The ignorance it revealed is mind-numbing. Fewer than a third of college graduates received a composite score of “proficient”—and about a fifth were at the “basic” or “below basic” level. You could blame the difficulty of the questions—until you read them. Plenty of college graduates couldn’t make sense of a table explaining how an employee’s annual health-insurance costs varied with income and family size, or summarize the work-experience requirements in a job ad, or even use a newspaper schedule to find when a television program ended. Tests of college graduates’ knowledge of history, civics, and science have had similarly dismal results.

Of course, college students aren’t supposed to just download facts; they’re supposed to learn how to think in real life. How do they fare on this count? The most focused study of education’s effect on applied reasoning, conducted by Harvard’s David Perkins in the mid-1980s, assessed students’ oral responses to questions designed to measure informal reasoning, such as “Would a proposed law in Massachusetts requiring a five-cent deposit on bottles and cans significantly reduce litter?” The benefit of college seemed to be zero: Fourth-year students did no better than first-year students.

These results are not anomalies and, Kaplan further argues, point to the conclusion that most college education is generally wasted effort and is rarely put to good use outside of the classroom:

Educational psychologists have discovered that much of our knowledge is “inert.” Students who excel on exams frequently fail to apply their knowledge to the real world. Take physics. As the Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner writes,

Students who receive honor grades in college-level physics courses are frequently unable to solve basic problems and questions encountered in a form slightly different from that on which they have been formally instructed and tested.

The same goes for students of biology, mathematics, statistics, and, I’m embarrassed to say, economics. I try to teach my students to connect lectures to the real world and daily life. My exams are designed to measure comprehension, not memorization. Yet in a good class, four test-takers out of 40 demonstrate true economic understanding.

As for his third point, this is an easy one to make for an economist. Too many college graduates means the value of any one graduate is worth less over time. This outcome is the result not just of too much supply but also of what Kaplan calls credential inflation. With so many college graduates available, employers soon make a second or event third degree a requirement for the best jobs. One can see this all over the corporate world. Where once a good career was the outcome of a solid college degree, today anyone who wants to climb the corporate or consulting ladder must have an M.B.A. One even finds PhDs and MD/MBAs in corporate roles that a few decades ago were staffed by BA/BS holders. Kaplan notes how credential inflation negatively impacts college graduates:

As the average level of education rises, you need more education to convince employers you’re worthy of any specific job. One research team found that from the early 1970s through the mid‑1990s, the average education level within 500 occupational categories rose by 1.2 years. But most of the jobs didn’t change much over that span—there’s no reason, except credential inflation, why people should have needed more education to do them in 1995 than in 1975. What’s more, all American workers’ education rose by 1.5 years in that same span—which is to say that a great majority of the extra education workers received was deployed not to get better jobs, but to get jobs that had recently been held by people with less education.

What’s interesting is that this pernicious effect has only lured more and more people into college, despite the fact that most people are not cut out for it and most people who start college don’t even finish:

As credentials proliferate, so do failed efforts to acquire them. Students can and do pay tuition, kill a year, and flunk their finals. Any respectable verdict on the value of education must account for these academic bankruptcies. Failure rates are high, particularly for students with low high-school grades and test scores; all told, about 60 percent of full-time college students fail to finish in four years. Simply put, the push for broader college education has steered too many students who aren’t cut out for academic success onto the college track.

Much has been written (and argued) by others on Kaplan’s last point, and a representative viewpoint is a 2013 Wilson Quarterly article that notes the complexities of this debate:

Some prominent educators have pushed back against the [college-for-all] movement in the last two years, citing its lack of pragmatism. In 2011, for instance, Schwartz coauthored an influential paper, Pathways to Prosperity, which reported burgeoning demand for “middle-skill” workers, including  electricians, construction managers, and dental hygienists. The report focused on fields where the average wage is above $50,000 ($53,030 for electricians, $70,700 for dental hygienists, and $90,960 for construction managers, according to 2012 figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics) . . . The “middle-skill” fields described in the report typically require an associate’s degree or occupational certificate, but not a four-year bachelor’s degree. “The ‘college-for-all’ rhetoric . . . needs to be significantly broadened to become a ‘post high-school credential for all,’” Schwartz and his colleagues argued.

As someone who grew up in the South Bronx and was one of only a handful of my high school class who completed college, I get that fact that it’s hard to have a debate about college versus vocational education without getting into issues of class and race. However, this is an issue that goes beyond these debates and is more about what good or bad colleges are doing not just for classes of individuals but for our society as a whole. What is the point of pushing poor and middle-class kids to take on crushing levels of debt for an education whose only lasting value is to tell employers that they are worth hiring? Is there no other way to meet this basic societal goal than by pushing kids into an educational system that is expensive, outmoded and out of touch?

Of course, a lot people, especially my liberal arts professor friends, will reply angrily that I am trying to place a monetary value on something intangible. I would take those arguments more seriously if most college professors, especially those in the liberal arts, were honest about what they actually provide to students. As I noted to the new president of my own Alma Matter earlier this year, an English or Classics degree is not a real Liberal Arts education. A liberal education in the true sense of the term would be an education that equipped someone to be a critical and productive thinker and citizen in today’s world, and that is impossible without learning coding, finance, biology, etc.. Pretending that four years of literature or history, with a few sleepy basic science classes thrown in, is sufficient preparation for today’s world is a gross hypocrisy and one that could only be perpetuated by a class of people who know very little, or care even less, about thriving in today’s global, ever-connected business world.

Kaplan ends his article with a simple thesis worth noting:

Education is so integral to modern life that we take it for granted. Young people have to leap through interminable academic hoops to secure their place in the adult world. My thesis, in a single sentence: Civilized societies revolve around education now, but there is a better—indeed, more civilized—way. If everyone had a college degree, the result would be not great jobs for all, but runaway credential inflation. Trying to spread success with education spreads education but not success.

He’s right, and I have hope that in the coming years we will break this outmoded model by, for example:

  1. Ending the role of universities as the sole validators of academic achievement and replacing them with independent, third-party systems that are continuously updated and accessible to anyone at any point in life
  2. Eliminating grades, which mean nothing anymore anyway, and moving to achievement-based scoring (i.e., passing a class is based on a tangible achievement such as independent testing, completing a project or publishing a paper and not on subjective teacher evaluations)
  3. Having companies join to sponsor a “moon-shot” effort to launch a new generation to vocational schools that are closely aligned to corporate needs and hiring plans and are not dependent on university systems for degrees
  4. Encouraging the wide-spread adoption of a re-defined Liberal Arts degree that prepares its holder for medical school, law school, or graduate school in biology, chemistry, physics, Languages, Literature or History
  5. Making college like graduate education, which is mostly free, by providing “seed tuition” to anyone who is good enough to get into college in the first place (and yes this would mean fewer people in college)

These ideas and many more like them are already being discussed or even attempted on the fringes of today’s academic environment. I therefore applaud Professor Kaplan for his article (which is adapted from his book on the same issue). It’s time that the arguments against going to college get mainstream attention, debate and action. We owe our children the effort to criticize and reform this outmoded and intellectually doubtful system. After all, today’s youngest children will inherit a fiendish set of problems we are creating and they deserve an education that looks not to the past but to the future to prepare them to meet those great challenges.