Bryan Caplan has dared to ask an almost taboo question, ‘Could it be that we have too much education?’ Brave question.
Education uber alles
In what is a deeply researched and comprehensive book, he concludes that education, especially Higher Education, is around 80% ‘signaling’, therefore much can be seen as of little value to society or even the students themselves. Not all, he still thinks there is essential value in the 20% proportion. A degree for many, however, has become a sticker on your forehead saying ‘hire me’. More people are getting ‘schooled’ for longer and longer and the percentage of your life being schooled is increasing. But to what end? Lots of people are now being prompted and pushed into being academic, when they’re not, prolonging their schooling, when the evidence suggest that it “neither raises their productivity nor enriches their lives”. His ‘signaling’ theory is persuasive, as it explains some odd phenomena, such as prevalence of cheating, the final year being worth more than all previous years, rising graduate underemployment and so on. Signalling raises salaries but not necessarily skills, through credential inflation, that’s why he thinks it’s so wasteful.
This leads him to the heretical claim that we should spend less on education, allowing that money to be spent elsewhere. He argues that arguments for lowering education spend tend to be politically unacceptable but “At what point would education spending be excessive?” - a reasonable question. In the US it’s $1.1 trillion. His recommendation is that we need less spend as that will deflate runaway creditialism, without reducing skills.
You’ll be thinking of all sorts of arguments against this, as I was, but just as you think you have an objection, Caplan has an answer, backed up by research. Time and time again he uncovers key studies that are rather shocking, such as those on the lack of evidence for education improving critical thinking. He gets rather tired of educators telling him that what they do ‘can’t be measured’ – it’s a cop out he claims. What I did like about this economist’s arguments was that he wasn’t scared to tackle educational issues, like the curriculum, quality of teaching and actual (as opposed to claimed) outcomes.
Why teach so much academic stuff for so long, for almost two decades, when they’re going to forget it anyway. Reading, writing and maths are necessary basic skills but much of the otherworldly curriculum, he argues, is outdated. Millions learning a foreign language in the US, merely for college admission, something they never use, and in any case couldn’t use, as they don’t gain even a basic competence. Schools have the odd and catastrophic result of making almost no one fluent in a language. As proof of futility of signaling he points out that we’re still teaching a dead language – Latin. Much of maths, especially algebra, abstruse number theory and geometry, and other subjects, are notoriously irrelevant, with little transfer, and even if useful, the knowledge is largely forgotten. The existing system seems unable to change, even when there’s overwhelming evidence of failure – for example forgetting during the long summer recess.
Caplan thinks we should Reboot vocational learning. This, he thinks, is a more worthwhile spend. We have evidence that it works from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. ‘Signaling’ theory tilts us towards rebalancing the system towards vocational. It raises pay, reduces unemployment and increases school completion. The fact that it carries a stigma, reinforces his ‘signaling’ theory, where middle class parents and employers rank vocational learners as inferior, is proof of his general proposition. However, the social return of vocational learning is clear and proven. In an interesting comparison, he notes that on-the-job training ‘internships’ are regarded as admirable for academic students but looked down upon in vocational learning. We have lost the admirable idea that early exposure to work, even Saturday jobs, are valuable, as “Early jobs are good for kids and good for society”. Unfortunately, we have a system that crowd-pleases the middle classes, while the disaffected and school drop-outs become embittered. Forcing bored kids through a relentless diet of academic work for 13 or more years makes them resentful – it backfires.
Like Roger Schank, Caplan thinks there’s two things wrong with Higher Education, what we teach and how we teach it. Research on the idea that academia broadens horizons in also rather bleak. Post-testing, even among garduates in the US shows a woeful lack of skills and knowledge. Only around 60% of students attend lectures in the first place, no one takes courses in their University unless they are mandated (though it’s easy and free) showing a puzzling disinterest in wider intellectual development. One fewer degree, it would appear, would make little difference as credential inflation has been rampant. The answer to not having a good view at a concert may for the individual to stand up, but if everyone stands up, no one gains. Worse still, to push an academic track on the “failure prone majority is cruelly misleading”.
At the national level, he shows that research about the economic benefits of education seem to “vanish”. The effects when found, seem “puny” and do not seem to justify the vast sums spent on education, making it more of an act of faith than evidence based policy. There is even evidence that reverse causation may be at work here. It is not that schooling creates prosperity but prosperity leads to more schooling. The richer a country becomes, the more it spends on politically appealing education. Yet Harvard’s Lant Pritchett, formerly of the World Bank, did the data crunching and in a now famous article ‘Where has all the education gone?’ found little evidence between education and higher economic growth. Cambridge economist, Ha-Jon Chang refutes the idea that ‘more education in itself is not going to make a country richer’ and there are plenty of counter examples.
Even worse, could education spend be increasing inequalities in society? Challenging question. Inequalities are certainly rising, especially in countries with large education spends. Caplan argues that massive subsidies for education hurt the poor through credential inflation, which reshapes the job market to their detriment. The economy hasn’t changed, we just have more graduates. On that note I highly recommend The Road to Somewhere by David Goodwin, who unpacks the Brexit phenomenon in the UK in terms of the emergence of a 'graduate' class. A similar thing may have happened in the US and elsewhere. To continue on this treadmill, he thinks, is a mistake.
His signalling theory also explains why online education, that simply apes the current system, MOOCs for example, are bound to fail. No matter how successful they are, they don’t provide the ‘signal’ (the degree) and that’s what students are really paying for. Students are buying signals, not human capital. Online learning makes perfect sense in terms of access, flexibility, cost and convenience - yet all of that goes out the window if the signalling is absent.
Anyone who is serious about education policy and open minded enough to consider the idea, not that education is bad, but that we’re spending far too much on the wrong things, should read this book. As Caplan says, he’s really a whistleblower. One of the reasons that education doesn’t really get put through the economic, sociological, political and pedagogic wringer, is that most of the people responsible for policy, have been through or work in its institutions. Confirmation bias is a powerful thing. His recommendations are that we focus on literacy and numeracy but cut back on spend to counter the non-productive ‘signalling’ and ‘credential inflation’ and spend more on vocational learning or other social goods, such as health, social care, whatever we decide. This is not just a good book, it is essential reading.