Bryan Caplan doesn’t just think outside the box when it comes to higher education. He stomps on the box and mashes it into the ground.
How much of what college students learn in class do they retain later in life?
Remarkably little, says Bryan Caplan, an economics professor at George Mason University. And thereupon lies a tale with massive implications for higher education policy in Virginia and nationally.
Students are subject to “fade out,” the diminishing memory of facts, figures, theories, and languages learned in the classroom that receive no reinforcement in life after school. The fact is, the vast majority of what students learn — whether history, English lit, psychology, calculus, French, or astronomy — is irrelevant to their workplace preoccupations as employees, and it is soon forgotten.
In other words, argues Caplan in his book, “The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time,” from a societal perspective the vast majority of college-level schooling represents squandered time and money.
The primary value of earning a college degree is to send a signal to the employment marketplace that the bearer of a sheepskin is intelligent enough, diligent enough, and conformist enough to undergo the multi-year trial of completing the requirements. “For the individual, higher ed helps get you a job and make more money,” said Caplan in an interview with Bacon’s Rebellion. “But for society, the benefits are very overstated.”
Some colleges and universities teach advanced vocational skills such as engineering or law. Students in those fields do learn skills they will apply in their jobs, but Caplan argues that most disciplines teach little that’s relevant in the world outside the ivory tower. A degree in history, for instance, trains the student to become a historian but not much of anything else. By his spitball estimate, 80% of the career-preparation value of a college education comes from signalling, only 20% from content they master.
Reflecting upon my personal experience, I would have to acknowledge that I have forgotten the vast majority of what I learned while earning B.A. and M.A. degrees in history. I recall only the barest of details from my courses in the history of China, Japan, Latin America, the West Indies, Africa, and European overseas expansion. Forty-plus years later, I know more about these topics than the average Joe, but what I’ve forgotten could fill an encyclopedia. Why? Because in my journalism career in Virginia, I never called upon that knowledge and it faded from memory. By contrast, even though I took only a single college course in American government, I retain a storehouse of knowledge about state and local government in Virginia because I call upon it constantly.
I depart from Caplan in my belief that I did learn something of enduring value at the University of Virginia — how to think rigorously and analytically. But then, I must concede, that skill came mainly from two honors courses in historical methodology co-taught by two extraordinary professors and from the experience of writing a senior thesis, not the vast majority of my courses. Most UVa history majors did not take the honors courses and never benefited from the exceptional give-and-take of that particular program.
Caplan would concede that, yes, college students do learn something of enduring value that benefits them later in life, just not much. If the goal is preparing people for the workforce, as so much of the emphasis is today, most Virginians could learn a lot more during four years on the job than they could in four years of college.
“In the real world, most of what you learn is on the job,” Caplan says. “People get good by doing. … Nobody gets good at anything by taking critical thinking classes. They get good by doing.”
Why, then, do millions of Americans collectively spend tens of billions of dollars to attend college? The main reason, Caplan says, is to get a good job. Higher-ed institutions are adept at sorting applicants by intelligence by using such measures as SAT scores and class rankings. But if that were the only value colleges supplied, businesses would select employees on the basis of IQ tests. The ability to complete a four-year program of 40 or so courses also tells employers about a student’s diligence, self-discipline and willingness to conform to institutional demands. Students who fail to complete a college degree — whether because they are not smart enough, are too lazy, or reject institutional norms — are significantly less likely to make good employees.
Caplan makes a prediction fraught with significance for public policy. The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) has set a goal of making Virginia the “best educated state” in the country by 2030, which means putting the public education system on a trajectory to produce thousands of degrees more than it would have on its previous path. If the supply of Virginians with a college degree exceeds the demand, the workforce won’t become any more productive Caplan suggests. But employers will separate the wheat from the chaff by increasing the educational criteria they require — credential inflation — thus requiring Virginians to devote even more time and expense to obtaining those credentials.
Caplan has another concern about setting arbitrary goals for the number of degrees and workforce credentials. Too many students are ill prepared for higher education as it is. American colleges are already full of students who aren’t capable of college-level work. Many of them are taking remedial classes, re-learning what they should have learned in high school. The fact that Americans have more educational credentials than ever says nothing about the quality of education they are receiving.
“If you could actually get schools to turn out people who can read or write, that would be an accomplishment,” Caplan says. “There are plenty of college graduates whom you’d be shocked by how poor their literacy or numeracy is.”
I asked Caplan if he saw any value in higher education as a consumer good — not just earning a degree but enjoying the residential campus experience, including everything from football games and dormitory bull sessions to ample opportunities to indulge in alcohol, drugs and sex. Instead of giving their kid money to backpack around Europe for a year, are parents paying their kids to enjoy four years of maximum freedom and minimum responsibility before embarking upon a lifetime of toil?
Some parents may be motivated by nostalgia for their own college experience, Caplan conceded, but he doesn’t think it’s an important factor in why they insist their kids get a degree. Most people attend college to advance their prospects in the job market. “Suppose college grads didn’t earn anything extra, how many people would still go? … College would be just for rich kids.”
Caplan sees considerable value in on-the-job training such as internships and apprenticeships — programs in which employees gain knowledge that they apply directly to work. I asked if he subscribed to the idea of “just in time learning” — taking courses and mastering skills as they are needed.
“From the point of view of taxpayers, that makes a lot more sense,” he says. Even then, he’s guarded about the value of acquiring knowledge by taking college courses. Say an aspiring manager wants to learn project management. How can he or she learn the discipline most effectively — by attending lectures and doing homework, or by shadowing someone on the job? Still, taking courses as needed is less wasteful than sending someone to college for four years and “consuming this giant buffet of stuff they’ll never need again.”There are currently no comments highlighted.