Is a college education a waste of money?

By Lenore Skenazy

It was not a whole lot of fun to interview Bryan Caplan, as my husband and I have two kids in college right now and the bills just keep on coming. But Caplan is an academic I respect. He’ll be in New York soon for a big debate at the Soho Forum, and he just wrote a book that will undoubtedly get a lot of people talking: “The Case Against Education: Why The Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money.”

“I see myself as a whistle-blower,” Caplan said. Though he enjoys tenure as a professor of economics at George Mason University, “I feel an obligation to tell people that the system seems dysfunctional to me. What students learn is not relevant in the real world. Most of what they’ll need to know is just to pass the final exam.”

This resonated a bit uncomfortably for me as I tried to recall what I’d learned in my Modern Russian History class at college, and, for that matter, my French Revolution class. And physics. And English Literature from Milton to, um, someone else. And…

Ahem! Back to Caplan.

As an economist, he naturally thinks about this issue in economic terms, starting with the “puzzle” of why college grads earn more than those without a degree. Many employers seem to be paying not for any actual skills or knowledge students have accrued at college, but simply for the “stamp of approval.”

“It’s a lot like going to a concert you want to see where one person stands up,” said Caplan. “If everyone stands up, no one can see any better. And if everyone has a bachelor’s degree, then no one does.” Or rather, a college degree becomes the baseline for getting a job interview. This makes it take longer and cost more to start earning a decent living.

It wasn’t always thus. In his book, Caplan looks at different occupations going back to the 1940s: How much education did waiters have back then, or hotel concierges? “Since 1940, the education for the same job is up by three years — the education you need to be considered worthy,” he says. And it’s not that the jobs have become so much more intellectually demanding. Some have, of course, but some are easier now. For instance, waiters in the 1940s had to add up the bill at the table. Today, a computer does that. And yet, today the job demands more “education.”

Meanwhile, this education keeps getting more expensive. For this, Caplan blames, in part, the availability of student loans.

“If students had to pay out of savings or earnings, the demand wouldn’t be there” for expensive schooling. But with loans readily available, demand is artificially high. In turn, the schools use this new pool of money to become ever more alluring, creating a sort of educational arms race: Who has the newest health club? The biggest auditorium?

Caplan is pretty adamant that the system is bloated and wasteful.

But he’s not just down on college. He is down on high school too.

“Kids are so bored!” he exclaims. And, he adds, so many classes are pointless.

Take, for instance, language instruction. The typical American takes two years of foreign language in high school. But what percent say they really learned to speak that language?

“Is it 15 percent?” I venture.Nope. “Five percent?” Nope.

“A bit under one percent claim to have learned to speak a foreign language very well in high school,” says Caplan. Ask if they learned enough to at least get by, and more people will say yes. “But you can’t get a job being able to speak a slight amount of Spanish.”

If instead of spending so many years in high school learning so many things they’re not going to use, students could be learning a trade instead, he said, many would be better off, Caplan says. Vocational education should not be a dirty phrase.

I agree! Vigorously!

And I’m thrilled some New York City high schools give kids a real-world skill.

But the CUNYs change lives too. I’ve seen it. Students from Azerbaijan and China and Ecuador somehow make it to America, learn the language, work a part-time job or jobs and become the first in their family to get a college degree. It changes the trajectory of their lives. And on the way to becoming an accountant or a teacher, some of them stumble into a computer class or Arabic or biology, and voila: their lives change again.

It’s true that not every class in high school or college is memorable, practical, or even good. And it’s true we shouldn’t dismiss anyone without a degree as unworthy of hiring. But it’s also true that the education system can be something other than a pit.

It can be a door.

Lenore Skenazy is president of Let Grow, and a contributor to Reason.com.

More from Around New York