Stossel: The College Scam

These days all Americans are told go to college! A higher education is the single best investment. But a new book, The Case Against Education says this college push is a big mistake. How many thousands of hours did you spend in classes studying subjects that you never thought about again? Economist Bryan Caplan says most people who go to college shouldn’t. I learned little in college. I liked my friends and illegal drinking, but I slept through lectures. At least tuition then was $2,000, now it’s almost $50,000. People usually just want to talk about the tuition, which is a big deal but there’s also all the years that people spend in school when they could have been doing something else if you just take a look at the faces of the students it’s obvious that they’re bored and people are there primarily in order to get a good job. Because a diploma is a signaling device for people with no more brains than you have but they have one thing you haven’t got, a diploma! The con man who was the Wizard of Oz hinted at the problem years ago. Doctor of Thinkology. Why’d you write this book? The Wizard of Oz already made the argument. But almost no one seems to believe it. College graduation has never been more valuable than it is today. Education is my top priority and by supporting this budget you’ll make it yours as well. Meaning taxpayers must pay for it. All the politicians say, go to college. And there is evidence the higher you go, the more money you make. It’s totally true that when people go and get more and better and fancier degrees that their income generally goes up, but the reason why this happening is not really that college is pouring tons of job skills into you, the reason is that it’s impressive. You aren’t saying, you, individual don’t go to college, you’re saying we as a country are suckers to push it and subsidize it. Exactly. Just because it is lucrative for an individual doesn’t mean that’s a good idea for country. Because when most everyone goes to college, that just raises the bar. Imagine that you’re at a concert and everyone is sitting down and you want to see better, what can you do? Well you can stand up alright, and of course then you’ll see better. Now it does not follow though that if everyone stands up everyone sees better. You just block each other’s views. The same thing has happened in education, says Caplan, as more people got degrees, more employers insisted on degrees. The result isn’t that graduates get better jobs, it’s that employers require degrees for most every job. There are so many jobs where it used to be crazy to think that you would need a college degree, like to be a waiter in a fancy restaurant where now it would be very normal. Of course a college education is about more than getting a job, it’s also about learning but Caplan says if students really wanted to learn, they would just do it. If you want to go to Princeton, you don’t have to apply, just move to the town and start attending classes. Nobody does that. In people’s bones they realize that what really counts is that diploma. Today that’s a taxpayer subsidized diploma and when you subsidize something, you get more of it. More students apply to college, so schools raise tuition. Tuition cost has risen at triple the rate of inflation. Schools use that money to attract more students and more tax money. Many compete by advertising luxury. They promote things like lobster dinners, fancy pools. Students will come to us and say, this is what sealed the deal. Used to be reading, writing, and arithmetic, and well we’re now the 4th “r”, recreation. 600 colleges now have rock walls. Give our Tigers spring break every time they step in to the Student Recreation Complex. This is a public school, taxpayers fund that spring break. We also fund years of study in subjects unlikely to help students get jobs, like social justice, gender studies, multicultural studies. If we’re doing computer science or electrical engineering, then you probably are actually learning a bunch of useful skills, but every year we graduate about twice as many psychology bachelor’s degrees as we do engineering bachelor’s degrees. Of course there’s value in learning psychology, philosophy, literature, many employers say they want liberal arts graduates. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing. It makes us better, wiser people. But you can’t assume that works. How many years of people’s lives should they be made to study stuff when the odds that they’ll ever appreciate it are 1 in a 100, 1 in a 1000? Maybe it makes our brains work better? It’s the kind of thing you’d expect teachers say, but there’s a whole field of people who have actually studied this. Much as they want to believe that you’re right they generally come away after looking at a lot of evidence and saying, wow actually it’s wishful thinking. Although Caplan calls college a scam, he says it’s great for a few people. People like him. I’m a tenured professor. Your audience may not realize how good of a gig this is, but a tenured professor cannot be fired for almost any reason and you get a nice income and there almost no demands upon your time. You just have to teach five hours a week? Well there’s people who consider that a horrible burden. That’s a scam that we’re paying so much money for people like you to teach you five hours. Yeah well, I’m a whistleblower. The bottom line of The Case Against Education: taxpayers ought to know that they’re getting ripped off. Government has made a tremendous effort to make education accessible to everyone. I say really what we need to do is to go back to a world where college is not so accessible, where it really distinguishes you, and in this way, people are going to be able to start their lives years earlier. The wisest solution all things considered would be if government just got out. It would be good if government got out of a lot of things.

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