The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is college worth it? One professor says no.

Why do tests taken before and after college reveal almost no retention of course material and little in the way of progress on generalized skills such as critical thinking and statistical analysis?
Why do tests taken before and after college reveal almost no retention of course material and little in the way of progress on generalized skills such as critical thinking and statistical analysis? (Beady Eyes for The Washington Post)

At George Mason University, where I teach, I regularly have lunch with a group of economists that includes a libertarian provocateur with an impish sense of humor named Bryan Caplan. Whether you agree with him or not (I usually don’t), Bryan makes you think hard about what you believe and what you think that you know. Now he’s is out with a new jeremiad, “The Case Against Education,” in which he argues that Americans waste hundreds of billions of dollars a year on a higher-education system that teaches too little to too many.

Citing copious amounts of social science data, Caplan calculates that at least half of the 67 percent premium earned by the average college graduate can be explained simply by the talent, knowledge and discipline that they already had when they arrived for freshman orientation. Much of the rest, he argues, is merely a signal to employers that college graduates are willing to put up with four years of (mostly) boring lectures and (mostly) tedious assignments in courses that (mostly) serve no purpose other than to test perseverance and willingness to conform to a prevailing culture. At most, he figures, only 20 percent of the college premium reflects any actual learning and skill development. For the typical student, he writes, a year in college “neither raises their productivity nor enriches their lives.”

If it is the coursework that makes college students more valuable workers, Caplan asks, then why don’t more people skip the admissions process and the tuition and just sneak into large lecture courses to soak up that valuable knowledge free?

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) announces the Excelsior Scholarship. (Video: NYGovCuomo/YouTube)

If it is classroom learning that matters, why does the labor market offer almost no wage premium to those who have successfully completed one, two or even three years of college, while providing a sizable premium to those who have completed four?

And why do tests taken before and after college reveal almost no retention of course material and little in the way of progress on generalized skills such as critical thinking and statistical analysis?

As Caplan sees it, our higher-education system is an effective but needlessly costly system for signaling employers about which workers to hire. The same goal, he suggests, could be accomplished with a smaller system that educates a much smaller number of talented and engaged students in practical subjects like science and engineering. Everyone else would be left to develop job skills at technical schools, in apprenticeships or on the job.

Caplan calculates that while those who stick it out and earn a degree earn a good return on their personal investment, that doesn’t apply to the half of poorly performing students who drop out. And as for public spending on higher education, he estimates rates of return ranging from paltry to negative, due to the high costs and dropout rates and the modest effect that additional higher education seems to have on economic output.

If you find all this hard to swallow, you are not alone. There are plenty of reasons to think that Caplan has overreached in his gloomy conclusions. His book is full of clever but faulty logic and rhetorical straw men set up and easily knocked down. Many of his conclusions reflect the overconfidence of the social scientist who thinks everything that matters has been accurately measured in “the data,” and the narrow focus of the economist who confuses education and worker training.

He ignores the value of sports and other non-classroom experiences that often reveal interests and hidden talents and help to shape character and ambition.

He too easily dismisses the importance of exposing young people to new ideas and values and life possibilities, and recognizes no role for higher education in equalizing opportunity, creating a shared set of cultural values or having more informed voters.

At times, Caplan tells us that labor markets are rational and efficient. At other times, not so much. Yet nowhere in the book is there evidence that he talked to real employers or real workers about how labor markets really work. And when confronted with the fact that people in every successful country seem to have made the same mistake of investing more of their new wealth on education, Caplan writes it off to “social desirability bias,” a kind of political correctness that causes people to refuse to accept unpleasant truths about themselves and others.

What is unfortunate is that these flaws will make it easy for people — particularly those in higher education — to ignore the very real evidence Caplan presents that our system of higher education is not all it’s cracked up to be.

For starters, you don’t have to be an elitist to conclude that too many students are showing up at too many universities unprepared. That may be because high schools have failed to teach the knowledge or skills or study habits that they need, or that at 18 they are not emotionally mature enough for the challenge, or that they are simply bored by classroom learning.

Whatever the reason, the right solution is to develop other pathways to career and life success. That may be as simple as encouraging students to take a few years off after high school to do something else, or creating a system of high-quality vocational and technical training, or relying more on internships and apprenticeships to determine career interests and develop basic skills.

The idea that a traditional college education is right for everyone who reaches age 18, or that it is necessary for getting a good job or achieving success in life — that is simply wrong. As I regularly remind my Mason students, life rarely proceeds in a straight line.

Caplan is also right that too many college courses are focused on transmitting specialized knowledge that we will never remember or use, and not enough on teaching students to analyze data, think logically and critically, come to reasonable conclusions and make a clear and cogent argument.

There are also important social skills to be developed. These are the things that will be important long after students have forgotten what the War of the Roses was all about or the third law of thermodynamics. Some schools have begun to require teachers to fill out all sorts of forms identifying “learning outcomes” and demonstrating how the course achieves them, but like so much in education, this has wound up being mostly a box-checking exercise.

The reality is that while university provosts, deans and department chairmen give lip service to improving educational quality and accountability, they haven’t done much about it. One reason is that today’s students are surprisingly complacent and don’t demand it. But the bigger reason is that professors resist it as a violation of their academic freedom and independence. Professors are hired and evaluated on the basis of their academic pedigree and research chops, not their ability to teach undergraduates. Once they are hired — and certainly once they get tenure — nobody reviews their syllabi, sits in on their classes or speaks to their students about their classroom experience. That’s not to say there aren’t many good and effective professors who take pride in their teaching and care about their students. But from an organizational perspective, the absence of quality control and the lack of focus on the experience — what is taught, how it is taught and how it can be improved — is a big problem.

Caplan is also right to warn of the danger of an educational arms race. To attract more students and ensure that they graduate, too many universities have lowered standards and reduced their workload, making the college degree a less valuable signal to employers about who they are hiring. In turn, more students have come to believe they must earn a graduate degree to attract the attention of employers.

One reason the returns on investment for higher education are not greater has to do with how big the investment has become. Despite all the hand-wringing about tuition increases and student debt, universities have never been serious about making the kind of deep structural changes that could lower costs and tuitions without sacrificing quality. There is serious money to be saved by trimming bureaucracies, making more extensive and creative use of teaching technology, altering schedules and calendars to make more efficient use of buildings and equipment and eliminating support for faculty research that is mediocre or lacks impact.

The unfortunate reality, however, is that as long as their graduates earn a 67 percent wage premium, universities will continue to focus on ways to enroll more students rather than delivering better value to — and demanding more from — the students they already have.