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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Against education

Most people don’t learn much in college beyond basic literacy and numeracy, writes Bryan Caplan in The Atlantic. A degree shows mastery of the hoop-jumping skills that employers favor.

An economics professor, Caplan has written a book titled The Case Against Education.

The vast majority of students are “philistines” with little interest in the life of the mind, writes Caplan, who calls himself a “cynical idealist.”

Indeed, today’s college students are less willing than those of previous generations to do the bare minimum of showing up for class and temporarily learning whatever’s on the test. Fifty years ago, college was a full-time job. The typical student spent 40 hours a week in class or studying. Effort has since collapsed across the board. “Full time” college students now average 27 hours of academic work a week—including just 14 hours spent studying.

Yet, thanks to grade inflation, the gentleman’s C is now a gentleperson’s B, a 3.2.

Earning a college degree pays off for individuals, he writes.

Would I advise an academically well-prepared 18-year-old to skip college because she won’t learn much of value? Absolutely not. Studying irrelevancies for the next four years will impress future employers and raise her income potential. If she tried to leap straight into her first white-collar job, insisting, “I have the right stuff to graduate, I just choose not to,” employers wouldn’t believe her.

However, college doesn’t pay for the poorly prepared, who are likely to borrow money, then drop out, writes Caplan. “The push for broader college education has steered too many students who aren’t cut out for academic success onto the college track.”

Furthermore, “the college-for-all mentality has fostered neglect of a realistic substitute: vocational education,” he writes.

For society as a whole, pushing more years of education doesn’t promote upward mobility, Caplan concludes. “If everyone had a college degree, the result would be not great jobs for all, but runaway credential inflation.”

We’re already seeing that.

The signaling power of degrees can be unclear, writes Jonathan Mott on EduCause Review. It’s not clear what knowledge  and skills a degree holder has mastered. “Given this ambiguity, some employers have taken the once-unthinkable step of removing a bachelor’s degree from job requirements — even for highly skilled, professional roles.”

College isn’t a waste of time, argues Noah Smith, who cites evidence that “going to college has large and positive effects on students’ cognitive, quantitative and verbal skills, as well as their personal development.”

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