Our Educational System: Should We Just Scrap It?

Bryan Caplan contests virtually every unchallenged premise we hold about our education system today. His new book, The Case Against Education: Why The Education System is a Waste of Time and Money, expands upon Americans’ growing skepticism about the value of a college education. He argues that formal education at all levels might be a raw deal not just for some people, but for our society in general.

The evidence is clear that high school graduates earn more than high school dropouts, and college graduates earn more than high school graduates. But is that earnings differential due to the value of education earned at each higher grade or level, or is there something else going on?

To answer this, the George Mason University economist begins by discussing two major purposes of education: the development of human capital, and signaling. Human capital purists would argue that “virtually all education teaches useful job skills and . . . these job skills are virtually the sole reason why education pays off in the market.” On the other hand, he writes, the “signaling” theory of education suggests that “even if what a student learned in school is utterly useless, employers will happily pay extra if their scholastic achievement provides information about their productivity.”

Few would argue that the U.S. educational system is purely one or the other; most consider it some combination of both. Schooling seems to most of us to entail the development of skills and character needed to be a productive employee, with a bit of signaling mixed in. Caplan makes the bold claim, however, that human capital development accounts for only about 20 percent of our formal education system. The other 80 percent of education, he argues, is simply an expensive gesture toward employers.

The fact that signaling exists is hard to dispute. Dropping out of college during senior year is detrimental to a student’s future employment because he or she failed to receive a diploma, even if 99 percent of the coursework was complete. Why do employers attach such a demerit to this? Because, says Caplan, employers value what the degree represents: not just intelligence, but also conscientiousness and conformity. These are all traits highly valued by employers but difficult to glean from simply looking at a job applicant’s resume. Similarly, every high schooler knows that your junior year history grade matters more than if you can remember how many wives Henry VIII had.

Throughout the course of the book, Caplan takes into account exceptions to his claims. But his solution remains abundantly clear: Local and state governments should discontinue all funding of public education. “Government heavily subsidizes education,” he writes. “In 2011, U.S. federal, state, and local governments spent almost a trillion dollars on it. The simplest way to get less education, then, is to cut the subsidies.” Or, in simpler terms, “The best Education Policy is no policy at all: the separation of school and state.”

Ending public funding for K-12 education is unlikely to happen anytime soon. While it’s an interesting intellectual exercise, the author’s proposed solution remains relatively irrelevant to current policy debates. However, the implications of his claims are quite pertinent to debates over higher education funding.

Americans are starting to question whether a four-year college degree is for everyone. While Caplan would not encourage good students to drop out of college and voluntarily put themselves at a signaling disadvantage, many Americans would benefit from taking a closer look at whether or not college is for them.

The simple premise that education is doing poorly at preparing students for the job market is relatively easy to swallow. But what about the social effects of education? Doesn’t education foster intellectual curiosity and appreciation for high culture? Caplan provides an answer for this, too: “Education definitely can be good for the soul. But that hardly shows actual existing education achieves this noble end.” He goes on to say that in order for education to be truly enriching, there must be worthy content, skillful pedagogy, and eager students. Each of these elements is hard to come by, though. He points to the shockingly low rate of reading among American adults, and to the fact that the bestselling books of all time are fantasy books, which may not necessarily indicate an appreciation of high culture.

The educational system is a staple of American society that every citizen goes through at some level. Many subscribe to the Jeffersonian ideal that public education is essential for the success of our democracy. Caplan does not disagree that intellectual curiosity, knowledge of American history, and general social capital are important for American citizens; he simply makes the case that our educational system is not as good at achieving these goals as we might think.

Declaring that 80 percent of that system is relatively worthless may well qualify as an overstatement (as many reviews of the book have called it). But whether or not the reader buys Caplan’s premise, it is still an incredibly important argument to consider. Given the enormous public investment that Americans are putting into the educational system, and the large student loan debt that society expects its young people to carry, one would assume policymakers are extremely confident that this system is a well-oiled machine. But in fact, since the 1970s, American test scores have remained stagnant. During that time, spending for K-12 education has more than doubled in real terms.

Americans who pursue higher education are struggling with $1.4 trillion in student loan debt and one in three college graduates is underemployed according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. With this poor record of accomplishment, failing to call into question whether or not the educational system is working would be intellectually dishonest.

Bryan Caplan’s book is arguably the most thorough critique of it to date. Those who study education policy have a new tool to examine the current system—at all levels—with a critical eye. For this reason alone, The Case Against Education stands apart in a sea of scholarly material and is indispensable to public discourse concerning education in the United States.