What Impact Does A College Education Really Have On Your Chances Of Finding A Well-Paying Job?
Recruiters will say anything to get students to sign on the dotted line, including promising better employment opportunities through a good education. As one Forbes writer discovered, “good” was often interpreted to mean “expensive.” There was little conversation about the reality of paying for that education.
Today, the average student loan debt load for a 2014 college graduate has ballooned to $33,000, which according to The Wall Street Journal, is nearly double the amount students had to borrow 20 years ago, even after factoring in inflation.
“The growth of student loan debt is being compared to the recent housing crisis because of the significant growth of subsidized lending,” said Bryon Spicer, president of Spicer Wealth Management in Dayton, OH. “Just as the mortgage lending boom pushed home prices up, student loan lending has put upward pressure on tuition.”
At George Mason University, where I teach, I regularly have lunch with a group of economists that includes a libertarian provocateur with an impish sense of humor named Bryan Caplan. Whether you agree with him or not (I usually don’t), Bryan makes you think hard about what you believe and what you think that you know.
Now he’s is out with a new jeremiad, “The Case Against Education,” in which he argues that Americans waste hundreds of billions of dollars a year on a higher-education system that teaches too little to too many.
Citing copious amounts of social science data, Caplan calculates that at least half of the 67 percent premium earned by the average college graduate can be explained simply by the talent, knowledge and discipline that they already had when they arrived for freshman orientation. Much of the rest, he argues, is merely a signal to employers that college graduates are willing to put up with four years of (mostly) boring lectures and (mostly) tedious assignments in courses that (mostly) serve no purpose other than to test perseverance and willingness to conform to a prevailing culture. At most, he figures, only 20 percent of the college premium reflects any actual learning and skill development. For the typical student, he writes, a year in college “neither raises their productivity nor enriches their lives.”
If it is the coursework that makes college students more valuable workers, Caplan asks, then why don’t more people skip the admissions process and the tuition and just sneak into large lecture courses to soak up that valuable knowledge free?
If it is classroom learning that matters, why does the labor market offer almost no wage premium to those who have successfully completed one, two or even three years of college, while providing a sizable premium to those who have completed four?
And why do tests taken before and after college reveal almost no retention of course material and little in the way of progress on generalized skills such as critical thinking and statistical analysis?
As Caplan sees it, our higher-education system is an effective but needlessly costly system for signaling employers about which workers to hire. The same goal, he suggests, could be accomplished with a smaller system that educates a much smaller number of talented and engaged students in practical subjects like science and engineering. Everyone else would be left to develop job skills at technical schools, in apprenticeships or on the job.