The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money (2018) by Bryan Caplan is a fascinating read that questions the mantra that ‘more education is always good’. Caplan is a highly credentialed Professor of Economics at George Mason University. The book is heretical in that it takes on the belief that ‘more education = more better’ that is incredibly prevalent with policy professionals and politicians of all ideologies and with the public at large. The book has provoked a considerable response including headline reviews in The Economist.
The book looks at what students use and remember from their education. Caplan demonstrates solidly that this is not much. Few people do math in their job beyond high school level math and very, very few people use their knowledge of foreign languages, poetry or history.
Given that people remember and use little of their education Caplan then goes on to explain why education appears to yield such substantial economic benefits to those who have it. He answers this question by looking at the ‘sheepskin effect’, that is the effect of getting a certificate on earnings compared simply to additional years of learning. If it is very high, which it is, then it shows that it is the signalling effect of education rather than what is learn that is important. In effect employers use High School completion and degree completion as simple filters when hiring. It no doubt leads to some bad hires and some bad misses but overall it works well enough that most employers do this.
This has the result that education is worthwhile for individuals, provided they complete their degree, but as something subsidized massively by government it’s actually a fairly poor investment.
Caplan makes the poses the thought experiment of who would we expect to earn more, someone who had a certificate from a highly rated University without having learnt the subjects or someone who had done all the work but who had no certificate. It’s hard not to imagine the certificate being of more value in earning more.
The book also looks at the fantastic amount of high quality learning material that is now available online and says that because the most important effect of a University education is the signalling value that he believes that it won’t have that much impact. He points out that high quality paper testing has been available for decades but is rarely used by employers. One thing he doesn’t address though is that if the credentials for online courses do become even a bit more respected and more people shift to doing online degrees it may become a way of getting certification that is good enough more cheaply.
Some people say that while some University is clearly not useful but that STEM subjects are. Caplan addresses this by pointing out that a large percentage of STEM graduates do not use what they have learnt in their degree and that instead it appears that hard STEM courses are a signal of high levels of ability.
The one form of education that Caplan does approve of spending on is vocational education that he believes to have a reasonable demonstrable return.
The book covers a lot of the material of Alison Woolf’s Excellent book ‘Does Education Matter’ that looks at the impacts of education. Woolf is more skeptical of vocational education because she has seen the limited success of attempts to improve it in the UK.
Against Education is a very good book and Caplan has spent years thinking about and researching his ideas. What he presents is quite compelling. For anyone with an interest education policy the book is definitely worth reading. It’s also very well written and easy to read.