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Refuting Caplan’s Thesis that College Education is a Waste of Time and Money

George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan has created a firestorm by claiming a college education is a waste of time and money, and he suggests that ‘traditionalist’ education that prepares students for prestigious careers (i.e., author, historian, political scientist, physicist and mathematician) is not for everyone and our educational system should be more open to a vocationalist purpose where students are prepared for careers they’re likely to enter.

The problem is Caplan appears to do a poor job of explaining what he means by a vocational-oriented education. Does he mean a degree in business administration such as Accounting which is in great demand and pays quite well for graduates? Don’t we need accountants and auditors to make sure businesses operate on the straight and narrow? What about the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and math? In depth knowledge of these subjects feeds our culture’s demands and economy-driven need for specialists in the applications and impacts of automation and artificial intelligence, business startups, technological entrepreneurship, and computer coding that enables us to access all the social media networks without which many could not live their lives.

Another problem with Caplan’s thesis is a college education [should] broaden one’s perspective to better understand the nuances of equity, diversity, and inclusion in our society; corporate social responsibility; and a sustainable economy. Social entrepreneurship s a buzz word on campuses and means a purpose-driven business environment that puts people, the planet and profit on an equal footing. Given the recent rash of sexual harassment charges, opioid addiction, and other scourges on society, who does Caplan think will best deal with these problems? Is it the brick layer who will invent new ways to save energy and provide for a green economy or a scientist, technology graduate, and engineer?

Caplan maintains that while everyone needs to learn to read, write, and do basic math, most of what is learned in high school and college is unnecessary and quickly forgotten. This makes no sense. I can go to a movie and be thoroughly enchanted for two hours and then forget much of what I saw within a few weeks, but does that mean I shouldn’t go?

A college education can train the mind to think critically, analyze all sides of an issue, and make decisions that benefits others; all needs of society and for people to have intelligent discussions of difficult problems and how best to solve them. While it’s true that colleges struggle with incorporating these thinking skills into their curriculum, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to try and do so. Caplan seems to have concluded it’s a waste of time.

Another benefit of a college education, and one to which Caplan recognizes but dismisses, is to develop in students the discipline and work ethic that will enable them to succeed in whatever endeavor they choose. Hard work and dedication to a cause is missing from society. But, don’t put all the blame on colleges. Students come unprepared to apply these skills because they are not trained to do so in [many] high schools. They also don’t learn them at home or see them played out on social media. Indeed, social media emphasizes getting what you want as soon as you want (and believe you deserve) to accomplish your goals in life.

There are other reasons why college may be valuable. Caplan admits to a “signaling effect” where employers come to believe that a college educated person has gained diligence, persistence, and conformity, but he says that is just as achievable by learning cement mixing as studying Sanskrit. The fact that he chose such an obscure path of study to debunk the value of a college education illustrates bias on his part. Why not compare cement mixing to a pre-med student?

There’s also the advantage of earning more money over one’s lifetime with a college degree, but that shouldn’t be its main purpose. Instead, it is a byproduct of all the hard work, selecting a degree path in demand, and an ability to dedicate oneself to achieve goals in life. People can earn a lot more money in entertainment or sports, and probably don’t need higher education, so the argument that college graduates earn more than non-college graduates is no longer the case – at least to the extent Caplan would have us believe.

Caplan’s solution to the dilemma of the value of a college education is reported by Bloomberg Business as “slashing public support for public education. He argues that if subsidies were taken away, poor youths who couldn’t afford college would be unharmed, because employers would begin to view a diploma as a signal of family money, not brains.” What he’s advocating here is the lowest common denominator approach to education. Rather than ending public support for a college education, states should guarantee all students have access to it and those who can’t afford it should be subsidized by the state in large part because they will become contributing members of society and be in a better position to self-actualize their needs in life. In other words, we need to thoroughly revisit how colleges can prepare students the benefits in life that make us fulfilled. But, let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on January 231 2018. Dr. Mintz is a Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He blogs about higher education issues and answers confidential workplace ethics issues. Visit his website to find out more about his services and sign up for his newsletter.

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