The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money
By Bryan Caplan
416 pp.; Princeton University Press, 2018
In his latest book, George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan has done what educators universally laud and applaud: he has impressively applied critical thinking to an important issue. Yet most educators will be appalled by The Case Against Education because it argues that most of what is spent on education in America is wasted.
Caplan has no illusions that his argument will be widely embraced. Most people have heard all their lives that spending more on education is the best way to improve the futures of our children and the prosperity of our country, and they serve as Baptists in the political process for the well-organized bootleggers who profit from education spending.
Politicians and organized groups, including educational professionals, routinely justify government support for activities benefiting them by claiming they create positive externalities: social benefits that are not captured by those providing them. Thus educational professionals argue that, without government support, less education will be provided than is socially desirable. Unfortunately, even when there is a positive externality, it is often used to justify government spending that creates a more-than-offsetting negative externality: social costs that are ignored by those benefiting from the spending. Caplan's case against the existing level of educational spending is that it creates negative externalities by motivating people to increase their education even when the social costs exceed the social benefits. The book makes this case more effectively than it has been made before, by considering the theoretical and empirical implications of applying the concept of signaling to education.
Signaling/ Signaling occurs when an individual's actions communicate useful, if only probabilistic, information about himself that is not otherwise apparent.
For example, how people dress, the conspicuousness of their tattoos, and whether they support the arts signal information about them to others, such as potential employers. The amount and difficulty of the formal education a person has acquired is obviously such a signal and was mentioned by the Nobel Committee in 2001 when announcing Michael Spence's Nobel Prize in economics for his work on signaling.
Caplan considers whether an individual benefits from the signal a good education sends to prospective employers, and whether that signal is an accurate measure of the social benefit of that education. He provides plenty of evidence that getting a good formal education yields the educated person a very attractive financial return. For readers interested in how to make the best use of educational signaling to increase their financial payoff, his Chapters 4 and 5 are worth the price of the book.
But Caplan also wants to know whether this individual benefit also benefits society. The answer...