The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is education a waste of time and money?

Sarah Carr is 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.

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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.

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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

By Bryan Caplan

Princeton. 395 pp. $29.95