Get the Latest Education Technology News, Jobs, Research and Opportunities.

Opinion | Postsecondary Learning

Why College Is Not an Employment Agency

By Robert Ubell     Feb 6, 2018

A new book makes “The Case Against Education.” It’s decidedly not something to give to a high-school junior looking to get into college.

The author, Bryan Caplan, a professor of economics at George Mason University, draws a picture of college as a bleak and miserable place, a Dickensian ordeal, peopled with distracted students, taught by mediocre faculty who, apart from mathematics, science and English, have nothing worth teaching their bored and listless students. In his telling, higher education is all a big, expensive scam—such a dark place that you imagine that students are housed in a prison, not on campus. “The harsh reality,” argues Caplan, “is that most students suffer in school. Nostalgics who paint their education as an intellectual feast are either liars or outliers.”

Caplan says that a college degree is largely useless, claiming that it does not show that students learned anything useful for their future in the workplace. “We have to admit,” Caplan assures us,” academic success is a great way to get a job, but a poor way to learn how to do a good job.”

Companies take it on faith that that a college degree is worth the handsome salaries graduates command; in contrast, dropouts suffer with little to show for their aborted time in school.

Craftily, Caplan pretends to discredit education because it’s a worthless training ground for industry, but his aim is more insidious, making the case for the withdrawal of state support from public education. “Stop throwing good money after bad,” he commands. “Cut education budgets. Shift the financial burden of education from taxpayers to students and their families.”

Caplan, a conservative libertarian, doesn’t demand the same austerity from private or for-profit schools, but instead, he targets the very place where students from families without means can achieve something and can go on to live decent, fruitful lives. Caplan would deny them that opportunity.

In his argument against the efficacy of education, Caplan marshals impressive-looking pseudoscientific bar charts on almost every page, standing like tall, upright soldiers defending his claims. But in his unsupported case for privatization, curiously, his armor disappears. Not a single chart or graph is displayed showing the benefits of defunding higher education. That’s because the actual data would undermine his case.

The nation has tried for-profit higher education and it failed.

“Publicly funded education has an awful track record,” Caplan claims, “wasting hundreds of billions every year.” However, shutting down state education is a disastrous idea, not only for reasons of ensuring equity in education, but also for its long-term effects on the economic health of the country. Universities are among the key driving forces in our thriving state economies—in California, Texas, Florida, New York and elsewhere—where colleges are the vibrant intellectual centers driving research and business development.

While Caplan dismisses the possibility that universities offer society any real economic benefit, data shows otherwise. After studying new data from UNESCO’S World Higher Education Database, covering 15,000 colleges and universities across 78 countries between 1950 and 2010, Anna Valero, a London School of Economics scholar, found that “the expansion of higher education from 1950 onwards was not just the product of growing wealth, it has also helped fuel economic growth around the world.”

Take a look at the 20 finalist cities in Amazon’s search for a second headquarters—universities are located at the heart of nearly every one. “All these places have something in common—nearby reputable universities that can churn out the young and the hopeful straight into Jeff Bezos's welcoming arms,” observes Chris Matyszczyk, a consultant, in Inc.

America is supposed to be the Land of Opportunity, where a son of a Jewish tailor from an impoverished shtetl in Poland—as well as millions of other children from immigrant and other poor families—can go to college and learn “useless” things like poetry and art history, as I did at Brooklyn College, then a free city school. Neither poetry nor art history—a waste of time for Caplan—will get most graduates a job after graduation, but we should be proud of a society that educates its citizens broadly and not just trains them as docile workers.

Many other economists tell us that the solution to the coming crisis in the workplace is more education, not less. As Harry Anthony Patrinos at the World Bank reports, “Post-secondary education graduates are at the lowest risk of losing to automation. Those with high levels of education are less likely to be in automation-prone occupations. ”

But Caplan believes that the university fails completely in preparing students for jobs. His assumption is that higher education is the place where students should gain the skills they need to get them good jobs. But universities are not employment agencies. His mistake is that he confuses procedural with conceptual knowledge.

In my new book, Going Online, I clarify the difference:

“Procedural knowledge means knowing how to manipulate a condition or how to perform a task; for example, how to run a science experiment or solve a mathematical equation. Procedural knowledge is also a measure of our skills, tasks we know how to complete, and techniques we know how to follow. Training is designed to give workers procedural knowledge in order for them to do their jobs effectively. Conceptual knowledge, on the other hand, refers to our ability to appreciate major parts in a system, understand complex relationships, or categorize elements logically. At their best, universities are expected to equip students to excel at conceptual knowledge.”

Caplan smirks about the U.S. higher education dropout rate, arguing that his bored students are voting against college with their feet. “Excruciatingly bored students fill classrooms.” he laments. “Well, ‘fill’ isn’t quite right, because so many don’t bother to show up.”

But students drop out for all sorts of reasons. Boredom may be one, but surely it’s not the principal impediment that drives them away—a suspicious claim Caplan repeats continuously, vilifying students for slumping in their seats with ennui. But the most devastating reason why students drop out is not lethargy, but high tuition.

For most, college is a luxury product, equal to buying a Mercedes every school year at many private schools. One of the most shocking consequences of the steep price of higher education is that some 40 percent of students who actually get accepted don’t even show up because they can’t pay the admission price.

Peterson’s college guide says that the number one reason students drop out is because of lack of funds to keep them going. “Many students take out school loans, but that isn’t always enough,” reports Peterson’s Brian Pivik. “Between the costs of classes, books, rent, and just trying to survive, students are more and more learning that while worth it in the long run, the cost of education is high.”

If Caplan's book was your only guide to what matters in college, you’d never come across ideals that secure a more just and honorable society—that enlighten thoughtful citizens. In the brief section Caplan devotes to “values,” he dismisses them out of hand, claiming that higher education has little or no effect on conveying them to students. You’d conclude that education has no place in democracy. It’s only what you can take to the bank that seems to matter to the author. If you look up “democracy,” “ethics,” and “wisdom” in the index, you won’t find them. None of these ideas on which education has been founded since ancient Greece are even mentioned in passing.

It turns out, however, that education does play a decisive role in our democracy. Nate Silver, the data journalist who founded FiveThirtyEight, calculated the effect of voter education in the last presidential election. Soon after results were in, Silver studied all 981 U.S. counties to see how they voted, sorting the numbers by least and most educated, among other slices of the data, especially income and race. His conclusion? Education, not income, predicted who would vote for Trump and who wouldn’t.

As an economist, Caplan is surely familiar with “commodification,” a concept at the heart of Karl Marx’s case against Capitalism. Marx theorized that under Capitalism, everything is measured in terms of monetary value, even knowledge. Doubtless, Caplan teaches the concept to his students at George Mason University. In The Case Against Education, Caplan has so thoroughly embraced the idea, he is convinced that hardly anything taught in today’s classrooms has any intrinsic worth. Caplan takes commodification to an absurd extreme—that only skills that can be turned into high-paying jobs after college are of any value. The rest—art, music, history, literature—he deems worthless. If it weren’t so grotesque, it would be funny, more Groucho than Karl.

My fear is that Caplan's prescription for American higher education will not be laughed off, but will be taken far too seriously. While Caplan believes he is a contrarian, expressing views thoroughly at odds with mainstream thought, regrettably, he is not alone. Jane Karr, former “Education Life” editor of The New York Times, warns that “State funding of public universities is on a track to reach zero in less than 20 years in some states and as soon as six in Colorado and nine in Alaska.”

State legislatures are already way ahead of Caplan, savaging state support for public education, shifting the burden from taxpayers to families—just as Caplan advocates.

Correction: This article originally misspelled the name of the author of The Case Against Education.

Be the first to know, with our weekly newsletter.