Is the US Higher Education System a Failure? (Bryan Caplan Interview)

Author: Zenresume Editorial Team
Updated on March 05, 2021

The pay gap between grads with a Bachelor’s degree and those with only a high school diploma has risen to an all-time high, reports show.

Depending on the source, after graduating from college, you’re likely to earn 60%–75% more than anyone else below your education level.

No wonder the US government is spending a record $183 billion a year on higher education (a 23% increase since 2008), right?

Well, it’s not that simple.

While higher education surely benefits individuals, some experts say that promoting easier, less restricted access to education is seriously detrimental to society as a whole.


In short—because education might not do what we think it does.

The better and more prestigious your education, the better off you seem to be, statistically.

But then again, you might have been better off in the first place. Smarter. More hard-working. Or from a family whose livelihood didn’t depend on you taking up work... so you got a diploma.

In other words: does education really make you a better employee or entrepreneur or is it simply a signal to the employer that you’re probably all that?

Bryan Caplan, Professor of Economics at the George Mason University, and the author of “The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money” is one of the strongest proponents of this theory.

What’s most surprising about it is that he’s spent the last 40 years of his life in school. Today, he makes a living of being a lecturer in college. And yet...

Slogans like “education matters,” or “we need more education” are very populist. And if there’s a theme of all my work, it’s “populism is wrong.”

Riling up the masses is a simple way to get very bad results. Emotionally satisfying policies are generally bad. The world is full of bitter choices and unpleasant truths, and if you don’t base policies on these, you waste a lot of money and time.

The people that’s really to blame are gullible voters. When politicians say: “We need money to create the best education system in the world, because education is our future,” voters believe it, instead of saying “Well, that doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever seen with my own eyes, it seems like making stuff up.”

But voters like that kind of talk. And so—governments get rich and spend taxpayers’ money in this very poor way.

Bryan Caplan
Professor of Economics at George Mason University, author of “The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money”

Sound blasphemous? Infuriating?

Or perhaps, deep down, you can’t help but agree?

Read my full interview with Bryan Caplan and let us know what you think!

It’s hard to improve the quality of higher education. But it’s easy to waste less money

Michael Tomaszewski: In your book, you make “The Case Against Education,” and state that the US higher education system is nothing but a waste of time and money. But common sense tells us that we want to live in an educated**, not an** ignorant society. Don’t you think college curricula serve this purpose?

Bryan Caplan: People learn a little bit in college. But much less than we would like to think. They also forget it much more quickly than we would like to think. Just divide the gain that people imagine by ten, or even hundred—then it might be accurate.

Also, I don’t know any college that teaches students to tackle real-life problems. I don’t think it’s possible to find a way to do it. All students would have to be so motivated and so interested in the world of ideas—I think it’s too hard to find that may people who are like that.

The performance we currently have is poor. That shows one of two things: either we don’t know a better way of teaching or existing schools don’t care enough to use methods that work. And I agree it’s hard to improve that. But it’s easy to waste less money—that’s why I push so hard on just that—wasting less money.

MT: What exactly do you mean by wasting less money**? Simply closing colleges?**

BC: Sure, that’s one good way of doing it. But there are many more: reduce the amount of government spendings on college, reduce the graduation requirements, or just stop hiring college graduates for, say, teaching kindergarten.

Another way is to raise admission standards a lot, so that far fewer students get into college and those who don’t do something else instead. Then, when there aren’t so many college graduates on the market, employers will have to be more open-minded and consider hiring workers with less institutional education.

As long as we have a third of young people with college degrees, of course employers are going to say “Yeah, you need a college degree to work at my nice restaurant,” because they can afford to be picky.

Once you really look, you can see so many ways to save the money. It’s just that no one looks at schools with the eyes of a budget-cutter.

MT: Don’t you think that something contrary could happen? That if access to higher education was more limited, it would bring about greater inequality between the educated elite and the working class?

BC: Probably, it would at first. But this would also mean that the elite wouldn’t need to go and get a Master’s degree or a PhD.

People are very focused on someone who is, let’s say, a good student from a poor family—they’re not focused on all those other kids from poor families. The current system might be good at finding that good student from a poor family but it also locks the brothers and sisters of that student, who weren’t such good students themselves, out of so many jobs.

MT: Where does intelligence come into the equation? Maybe one’s success on the job market doesn’t really depend on college credentials but simply on intelligence and conscientiousness?

I talk about this a lot in my book. There are some fairly good measures of intelligence and when you statistically control for intelligence, a part of the effect a college degree has on earnings goes away but most stays there.

Controlling for intelligence reduces the apparent effect of education on earnings by 30%. For conscientiousness, well, the measures aren’t very good, but still—there is no sign that all the measures that we have explain more than half of the higher education earning premium.

I’ve never seen any decent work showing that education doesn’t have a big independent effect on earnings. And if it didn’t, I wouldn’t have to write my book, I would just say: “People think that education raises earnings, but they’re wrong.” Unfortunately, they’re right. But in terms of skills colleges teach their students, people are giving education way more credit than it deserves.

MT: Can vocational education be a realistic substitute for college education for those students who aren’t “cut out” for academic success?

BC: There’s one big difference between vocational education and regular education. Vocational education teaches you actual, useful skills. If everyone gets an extra degree, it doesn’t guarantee better jobs for everyone. Acquiring more skills? That’s what can make a difference.

MT: Alright, skills and credentials aside, what about networking opportunities granted by college attendance? Isn’t it a good reason to promote college education?

BC: Networking is very important for a small number of people in vocational majors, for instance, computer science, where you actually meet future coworkers, future customers, or future employers. Say, Stanford Computer Science—it probably has a high networking value.

However, most college students will never take a class with someone of any use to them because the economy is so vast and most majors are completely unrelated to any industry. If you’re an English major, the odds that any of your friends in English will actually be able to give you a job or be your coworker are very slim.

What sociologists say is that you need your contacts to be relevant. You need to have a friend in a job that you’re capable of doing. Those connections are the good ones.

But most college students don’t meet people like that because what they’re doing is just too distinctly tied to their job, and not what they’ve been taught at college. Usually you don’t meet useful professional contacts at school. You meet them on the job. But first, you have to get the job.

MT: What would be a better solution—to incorporate more vocational trainings into current college curricula or to make higher education more exclusive and harder to obtain, thus making more high school grads eager to take up traditional vocational education programs?

BC: The latter. Just make it harder to get into college. In general, I think waiting with vocational trainings until college is already too late. The kids that really need it are those that don’t like school. Later, in college, they’re usually very unhappy, and are likely to drop out. Waiting until someone is 18 to start teaching them to be a plumber or electrician seems silly to me. You should start when they’re 12 or 14.

So—what do you think?

Would sending less people to college help the labor market in general? If education was money, would you say we’re suffering from inflation?

Or, perhaps limiting the access to higher education would make class divisions even more hierarchical and unfair?



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