The class clown is onto something

Friday, December 8th, 2017

Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education comes out soon, and he managed to get The Atlantic to publish a summary — which is sure to ruffle some feathers:

How, you may ask, can anyone call higher education wasteful in an age when its financial payoff is greater than ever? The earnings premium for college graduates has rocketed to 73 percent — that is, those with a bachelor’s degree earn, on average, 73 percent more than those who have only a high-school diploma, up from about 50 percent in the late 1970s. The key issue, however, isn’t whether college pays, but why. The simple, popular answer is that schools teach students useful job skills. But this dodges puzzling questions.

First and foremost: From kindergarten on, students spend thousands of hours studying subjects irrelevant to the modern labor market. Why do English classes focus on literature and poetry instead of business and technical writing? Why do advanced-math classes bother with proofs almost no student can follow? When will the typical student use history? Trigonometry? Art? Music? Physics? Latin? The class clown who snarks “What does this have to do with real life?” is onto something.


Suppose your law firm wants a summer associate. A law student with a doctorate in philosophy from Stanford applies. What do you infer? The applicant is probably brilliant, diligent, and willing to tolerate serious boredom. If you’re looking for that kind of worker — and what employer isn’t? — you’ll make an offer, knowing full well that nothing the philosopher learned at Stanford will be relevant to this job.

The labor market doesn’t pay you for the useless subjects you master; it pays you for the preexisting traits you signal by mastering them. This is not a fringe idea. Michael Spence, Kenneth Arrow, and Joseph Stiglitz — all Nobel laureates in economics — made seminal contributions to the theory of educational signaling. Every college student who does the least work required to get good grades silently endorses the theory. But signaling plays almost no role in public discourse or policy making. As a society, we continue to push ever larger numbers of students into ever higher levels of education. The main effect is not better jobs or greater skill levels, but a credentialist arms race.

Lest I be misinterpreted, I emphatically affirm that education confers some marketable skills, namely literacy and numeracy. Nonetheless, I believe that signaling accounts for at least half of college’s financial reward, and probably more.

Definitely read the whole thing. You might learn — and even retain — something.


  1. Charles W Abbott says:

    “When will the typical student use history?”

    Thomas Jefferson asserted that the best form of education for citizens of our republic would be “chiefly historical.”

    This makes even more sense if you remember Bismarck’s statement that “Any fool can learn from his own mistakes, but a wise man learns from the mistakes of others.”

  2. Bill says:

    The deep budget cuts to education, and the plan to get rid of the tax benefits that grad students enjoy, is a clear signal by the Trump administration that they know what non-elite Americans know – education past the ninth grade is a waste of time for most people. Only fifty-six percent of bachelor degree students actually get their degree in six years or less. Student debt far exceeds credit card debt. Many of the so-called degrees are in not just useless topics, but the actually harmful degrees associated with political correctness and which require businesses to support the affirmative action quota tax.

    They’re going after it the only way they can; cut support for all of it. Sure, you might argue that this cuts off support for useful fields like math and science. But recent reports show that more than fifty percent of the people with high-paying Silicon Valley jobs requiring bachelor degrees aren’t even American citizens. What’s the point of supporting a college system that produces graduates that won’t be hired by American businesses? Of course, I’m sure the parents of DACA kids appreciate the $150,000 dollars of state and local funding that paid their kid’s way through high school, and the foreign students who take advantage of our fine colleges and universities appreciate your continuing support.

    Stop being chumps. Demand a stop to all immigration, legal and illegal, give business the tax breaks they need to relocate here, and choke off the higher education boondoggle.

Leave a Reply