Donald Clark is a Professor, Entrepreneur, CEO, Researcher, Blogger and Speaker. He was CEO, and one of the original founders of Epic Group plc, which established itself as the leading company in the UK online learning market, which he floated on the Stock Market and sold. Now the CEO of Wildfire Ltd. an AI in learning company, he also invests in, and advises learning companies.
Nina Huntemann is Senior Director of Academics and Research at edX. Prior to joining edX, she was a tenured professor at Suffolk University in Boston where she lead faculty development and academic innovation initiatives. In her current role, Nina is the academic lead on a number of projects, including edX MicroMasters programs and online Masters degrees. She is passionate about expanding access to education through evidence-based online teaching and learning at scale.
Willem van Valkenburg is manager Teaching & Learning Services at Delft University of Technology. His team supports teachers improving their education with technology. Willem is involved in ICT in education since 2003 and the last couple of years mostly worked in open and online education within TU Delft Extension School and as Vice-President of the Open Education Consortium.
Is higher education a waste of time and money?
Does anyone remember being bored in school or was it just me? It seems it was virtually everyone. If you say you enjoyed Latin and Shakespeare, it may be that you don’t really remember correctly, but if you did, you are in a very small minority. From my memory, there were very few of us who were sad when a class was cancelled. Being bored and staring out the window is not just a problem with the weaker students. Steven Pinker of Harvard has observed that even the best students in the world are bored by the best teachers in the world. “It’s common knowledge that Harvard students stay away from lectures in droves, burning a fifty-dollar bill from their parents’ wallets every time they do”.
Boredom wasn’t the only thing bothering us. We often scratched our heads and wondered “What use will this ever be to me?”. Even if a few of us trusted the system and believed that all would be revealed at some point in the future, for many topics that usefulness was never revealed. There were many things we learned at school or in college, we promptly forgot within weeks of the exam, and never used in our lives since then. Perhaps we managed to bore someone at a dinner party with the Latin root of some English word or insert a relevant quote from Shakespeare into a conversation (most likely heard from others a thousand times since and not from the play you did for the examination), but by and large we’ve managed quite well without remembering a lot of what we learned. You may have got on well in life so far, perhaps better than those who left education earlier than you, so despite all you have forgotten, it must have done you some good.
Not much, says Bryan Caplan an economist at George Mason University in Virginia. And he claims to have the statistics to prove it. In his book, “The Case Against Education: Why Education is a Waste of Time and Money”, Caplan maintains that, between learning stuff that we’ll never use and inefficient learning of useful stuff, education is largely a waste of time. And money, if you compare the increase in earnings for the whole country due to education and compare it to what is spent on it. But if education is such a waste, how can you explain why countries, that are richer, have higher levels of education, and people within those countries who have higher levels of education do better than those with less education.
For the first of these objections Caplan rolls out a hypothesis that has been around a little while, namely that although there is more education in richer countries, it is not clear that the education is the source of that prosperity. It is just as likely that richer countries put more money into education simply because they can afford it.
As for the observation that those with more education do better, Caplan proposes an explanation that many have considered to be partially true for some time, but perhaps not realised just how true it might be. Many people have observed that there has been “inflation” in qualifications over time, that you now need higher qualifications for the same job than you did thirty years ago, and also that many are over-qualified for their jobs. Indeed, the economic concept of “inflation” is useful. If you have a surplus of one resource, “qualifications”, chasing a limited supply of another, “jobs”, you would expect the “price” to rise. If more qualifications are attainable, and kids need these to compete for jobs, they’ll go get as much as they can.
But why would an employer employ someone with a degree in knowledge that is not required for a job rather than someone without a degree? When degrees become common, Caplan says, employers will be suspicious of those who don’t have them and prefer those who do. Their qualifications “signal” to prospective employers, attributes that are highly desirable in an employee. He lists the main three attributes as intelligence, work-ethic and conformity. He claims that his trawling of the statistics indicates that these three attributes are more important to employers than knowledge or skills, and if higher education is available to most people, then it is the most reliable indicator of these attributes in a prospective employee. Getting a degree is not easy. If you have one you must be fairly smart and hard-working. And if you’re smart and hard-working and don’t have a degree, well, that’s a little suspicious. So a degree becomes a reliable test of employability, even if an expensive one that the employer does not have to pay for.
Sure, Caplan agrees that the qualifications indicate that you may have learned some useful stuff, but by his calculations he estimates that the usefulness of the stuff you learn in college generally accounts for about 20% of your subsequent improvement in earnings and the 80% remaining is due to signalling to employers that you are made of the right stuff for them.
But what about the the claims of higher education’s importance for the development of the person? Caplan is skeptical. This would be fine if it were true. What limited research there is indicates that higher education has very little impact on critical thinking skills and does not generate any great interest in the finer arts such as poetry or opera. My own personal observation of friends and relatives that have never been to college compared to those who have, confirms Caplan’s claims that it has no noticeable effect on “personal development” as claimed by many. No doubt they would be offended if I suggested it did.
So what can be done? Well, Caplan’s proposed solution is fairly drastic. Remove all subsidy from higher education and let people pay for it themselves. It’s not that he wants people to pay for their own education, he just thinks that most should not go at all. If fewer people can afford higher education, employers will stop looking for this as a signal and look for other evidence of employability. Just as they used to do. He suggests that it may be worth supporting vocational education, but his main suggestion is that young people should just go out and work where they actually learn the most. Even before finishing secondary school.
Now even for a libertarian leaning academic like myself that has some sympathy with the diagnosis, this remedy seems a bit too radical. Although those of us who work in higher education can take comfort from the fact that such a remedy would be politically impossible, we owe it to those who are ultimately paying for our services to consider to what extent the diagnosis is true in Ireland. If it is even half as bad as Caplan claims, it is unacceptable, and it is our duty to find out how bad it actually is and see how we can fix it. We need to be thinking about how we can make our teaching more relevant, more effective and more efficient. And if we can’t do that, perhaps we should have less higher education.