Mises Wire

What You Really Pay for In College: Credentials, not Education

In Episode 4, Season 3 of “Last Chance U,” Coach Jason Brown told his players, “Ignorance is life threatening, man.” The Independence Juco coach said, “Eighty-nine percent of NFL and NBA players are bankrupt three years after retirement.”

“I know you guys can’t comprehend half that shit,” the coach yells, referring to what is being taught in class. It doesn’t matter. He tells his players to go to class, sit in the front row, stay off their phones and, “you’ll get a C.”

He then admits on camera for Netflix and his players, “I didn’t learn one thing in high school or college.” After giving his players a few examples of things he doesn’t know, he said, “But, I’m a cold hustler.”

His message: “It’s a game.” Play football to get an education and a degree. Will you learn anything? Probably not. Crazy as it sounds, Dr. Bryan Caplan is on the same page as Coach Brown. What makes college worth it — signaling.

Caplan explains, “Graduation tells employers, ‘I take social norms seriously — and have the brains and work ethic to comply’ Quitting tells employers, ‘I scorn social norms — or lack the brains and work ethic to comply.’”

In his outstanding book The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money Professor Caplan rejects the idea that all education teaches useful job skills and those job skills pay off in the labor market. Instead, we learn our job skills on the job. A degree signals that students have the discipline to suffer through the boredom to conform to what society expects and what employers want.

You don’t use history or math on the job, unless you are a math or history teacher. “First and foremost: from kindergarten on, students spend thousands of hours studying subjects irrelevant to the modern labor market,” writes Caplan.

Caplan teaches economics at George Mason. He says he has a dream job. “I go to class and talk to students about my exotic interests: everything from the market for marriage, to the economics of the Mafia, to the self-interested voter hypothesis.”

He can train Ph.D. students to be economics instructors, but the rest? “I can’t teach what I don’t know.” Most of Caplan’s students will go on to have careers far away from economics.

Getting an A in European Literature doesn’t matter to an employer. What matters is degree holders’ “grasp of and submission to social expectations.” That degree from Wherever University shows you’re a team player, you’re deferential to superiors, you dress the part, you act the part, you’re not a racist or sexist, and your employer won’t “have to tell a modern model worker what’s socially acceptable case by case.”

Caplan gives it to the reader straight: “Hiring decisions, like all business decisions, are about prudence, not proof. People at the top of their class usually have the trifecta: intelligent, conscientious, and conformist.”

M.I.T. has been giving away classes online for years. The degree you have to pay for. Caplan makes a compelling case that the reported demise of traditional brick-and-mortar universities is unlikely. Sure, online courses are cheaper. However, for a student to prove his or her conformist chops, attending in person gives a stronger signal than completing online classes in your mom’s basement. Caplan makes the point that “life isn’t a game of solitaire. Schools build discipline by making students show up on time, sit still, keep their mouths shut, follow orders, and stay awake.”

Think about what the average employee does? School prepares the student for “doing boring work in a hierarchical organization.”

Students don’t want skills, they want credentials. “Employers could have substituted standardized tests for traditional diplomas a century ago. They didn’t,”Caplan writes.

Caplan spends much of the book debunking the human capital theory of education. Students never complain when an instructor cancels class, but if instructors were truly building student’s human capital, students would demand a refund for every cancelled class and the knowledge capital they should have received during that class period.

“Do we really transform waiters into economic consultants — or merely evaluate whether waiters have the right stuff to be economic consultants?” Caplan wonders.

So, are high school and college grads literate? Over half of high school graduates and nearly 20 percent of college grads are not at an intermediate level of literacy and numeracy. No wonder “high culture requires extra mental effort to appreciate — and most humans resent mental effort.” Americans spend only about $100 a year on reading materials, and “despite years of study, most adults are historically illiterate.”

There is a lack of skilled labor in America and Kaplan’s Chapter 8 is entitled “We Need More Vocational Education.” There are hundreds of thousands of jobs available for plumbers, carpenters and auto mechanics, while only a few writers and historians are needed. A generation of skilled tradesmen are unemployed or malemployed with business degrees. Parents need to realize that if their child is an average or poor student, they will likely not graduate from college and should pursue vocational school.

As for politics Kaplan explains, “in politics, critical thinking is an act of charity.” Falsehoods become popular because humans gravitate toward ideas that sound good. It’s called Social Desirability Bias because it’s easier to tell people what they want to hear. Politicians appeal to voters’ wishful thinking.

This election season, every politician says more money is needed for education. Kaplan’s point is less should be spent, especially on poor students. The United States is overeducated, providing a low social return. Politicians are too dumb to realize it.

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