Bryan Caplan  

Earth to Educators: People Hate School

Church and State... A Fun Stupid Question...

Brad DeLong raises an important puzzle:

One would have thought that the rise in the value of a sheepskin from a 30% lifetime wage premium over a high-school diploma in 1975 to a 90% premium in 2005 would have called forth an extraordinary wave of public support and public funding for investment in education that would have pushed that premium down somewhat: lots more Americans should be getting a higher education now than were getting one in the mid-1970s. But they aren't.

Part of the explanation is that this "lifetime wage premium" blends the return to education with the return to ability. Clever counter-arguments notwithstanding, people who currently don't go to college wouldn't earn the "expected" return if they enrolled because they have less ability to begin with.

Even so, I am convinced that - holding ability constant - a college degree pays a lot more than it used to. So Brad's puzzle remains. Why aren't more people going to college? The best explanation is one that educators - and above all college professors - find almost impossible to believe: Lots of people truly hate school. They find it insufferably boring, pointless, and pompous. Even a massive increase in the return to education isn't enough to make them willing to endure four more years of pointless, pompous boredom.

In technical terms, my claim is that our currently high return to education is a compensating differential. As demand for educated labor has gone up, the marginal college student has rapidly become a person who hates school, and has to be paid a ton of compensation for the pain and suffering of listening to people like Brad and me for hours on end.

If you're tempted to respond, "But I love school, and so do all my friends. Ah, the life of the mind, what could be better?" let me gently remind you that readers of economics blogs are not a random sample of the population. Most people would hate reading this blog; you read it just for fun! To paraphrase Rambo, "What you call home, they call hell."

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (43 to date)
Nathan Smith writes:

You're too modest, Bryan! Very few people, I think, would regard reading your blog as hell. (At least not because of its dullness; socialists might find it a crucifying read.)

But then, there's not a lot of Greek-letter economics on this blog, either.

James writes:

Don't forget the individuals who love learning but hate the structure of school, such as myself. If I want to become an economist, why do I have to spend $120,000 and study for 5 years or more at a pre-determined pace in what is basically an apprenticeship program? Why can't I just do all of my learning independently and take a competency exam to certify that I have the same level of knowledge as an economist? This would be a much more cost-effective way to raise the supply of credentialed economists than subsidizing access to Ph.D. programs.

Steve writes:

I wonder if a lot of that premia goes to holders of private school degrees, thus the benefits of a college education are not so obvious to the typical person, whose only encounter with higher ed is with State U: either as a consumer, an employer, or co-worker of graduates of the local university.

TGGP writes:

I hated school when I was young, but university isn't so bad, because (thanks to A.P credit) I mostly get to focus on the stuff I want to learn. I agree with you that pundits far too often assume that everyone is the same despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Phil writes:

Like James said. I would seriously consider becoming an economist under the system he proposes.

School is a very, very inefficient way to learn stuff.

Giovanni writes:

I think educators under-estimate and fail to understand the resentment that students develop towards school (and their parents) and over-estimate lack of interest in academics and lack of intelligence.

When I was 18-22, I *hated* school and dropped out of college. I loved math and science and wrote very complicated computer software for fun, but formal school was extremely oppressive and anti-academic. Now, as a 30 year old adult, I'm completely over my adolescent resentments. I take very challenging science classes at night for personal enlightenment and I *love* them. And trust me, I have a great career and I don't need school for money or career purposes at all.

Mensarefugee writes:

School was an utter waste of time. Hate doesnt cover my feelings for it. More like loathing.

Good post, Bryan.

Ryan Fazio writes:

Maybe it's because I am in high school that I am led to believe that the problems start in HS. The reason that students find (high) school especially boring is because it is especially boring and because there is far more which makes you want to gouge out your eyes and ears than makes you want to open them.

This reality is probably to a large extent a side effect of government control over the vast majority of high schools (obviously there is far more competition in higher education and consequentially we see students enjoy college much more). The curriculum that public HS provide is dull, rudimentary and not conductive to innovation and a student's individual growth. If high school was less like what grammar school should be and more conducive to the student's individual interests--allowing them to chose more of what they study, and explore those concentrations themselves (more like college)--I think we'd see fewer students treat school as a postal worker treats his job.

For instance, I like economics a lot; i want to study it in college. My high school has no economics courses. I also like philosophy. My high school has no courses on philosophy. I am relegated to studying them on my own, which nevertheless I enjoy doing. But the point is that there is a lot more that I and other students miss out on because high school is how it is.

I think its time we all realize that education is a commodity like any other, and commodities are best produced under a free market environment. We will see more choice, more individual growth, and a more stimulating intellectual environment for students once we separate school and state.


Arnold Kriegbaum writes:

I teach high school. Almost to a person, my students says "I hate reading". But when pressed further, none would like to give back their ability TO read, they just don't like the typical material they are required to read.

Also, one of the big functions of schools is to not only teach but to document what students have learned.

Perhaps learning is in vogue, but the current model of verifying that learning isn't working any more.

sd writes:


In principle, nothing is stopping you from reading/educating yourself on your own time and the sumbmitting articles to economics journals. You can even talk to professors from any school you want - most will reply to polite/pertinent emails, and even offer free comments. Heck, you can even attend lectures for free, nobody ever checks IDs at any class I've ever been at.

An economics PhD has little to do with straightforward learning, which I think for the most part can be done in isolation, and more with writing/creating. If you managed to write interesting papers which get published nobody would care what degree you have/don't have. The problem is this creative process takes discipline and perseverence, not simply understanding of existing issues/literature. To turn a good paper (hard enough to write!) into a publishable one is a painfully long (and often boring) process, and few people have the patience for the many itterations it requires. This is where the school structure/environment helps somehow.

Lord writes:

I think you may be underestimating how much of the educational establishment believes it is for the select few and their purpose is to rid higher education of the undeserving. I can still recall one professor who announced his class was too large for the program and he his job was to eliminate 2/3rds of the students in that very course. He came close to doing it too.

Tino writes:

Outside of the imaginary liberal world Delong lives in there is a simple explanation: IQ.

There are only that many people with the talent to graduate from college. In a sample of about 1000 people with known IQ 82% of those with IQ above 125 went to college, compared to 19% of those with 90-110, 3% of those with 75-89, and 0% of those below 75.

What is the most likely explanation: preferences or smarts?

Ajay writes:

And they hate it for very good reason, because it forces them to do things that are in fact useless. When you say that students don't want to listen to you and Brad, you make it sound like they're unintellectual, because I'm sure you and Brad are probably much more interesting to listen to than the average professor. Rather, the problem is that the system is antiquated and based on tradition and ignorance, instead of any rational analysis of what students need to know. Let me highlight some of the ways.

Calculus and trigonometry and axiomatic geometry are forced upon students even though they are completely useless for the vast majority of degrees. Reading and writing are taught using antiquated texts that have no relevance to students' lives and that are indeed chosen for the bland pap that they are (as pap will not be criticized by some crusader). That's the reading part, the writing part is still taught by having students do textual analysis of english literature, as though that has ever been and ever will be a useful skill. The actual teaching is still done using the highly stupid and inefficient methods of the past, for example, having a lecturer bray in front of a class. Think about that for a minute. That only made sense when there was a single book and the lecturer was the only one privy to it. Then, he could broadcast what he had read in front of the book-less students. Now that everyone is forced to buy overpriced books at schools and colleges, a much more efficient way would be for the students to read the material (or a summarizing handout if the book is too complex) and have the teacher answer specific questions or go over specific examples in front of the class (they could determine what to go over by having the students submit questions and examples they had difficulty with beforehand and the teacher could pick what he feels to be most relevant or that caused the most problems for his students). However, even though everyone has had books for decades, every class everywhere continues to follow the lecturer method as though the lecturer is the only one who owns a copy of the book.

The fundamental problem is the stupidity of the people teaching. You can blame the students all you want but they have been placed in institutions that are fundamentally broken. And the reason they are fundamentally broken and continue to stay that way is that there is no competition, the free market is not allowed in.

Randy writes:

I had a flashback to Sam Kinison.

Say it! Say iiiit! Because its Boring! Yeah!

I definitely have to agree, though I don't see any way around it.

Robin Hanson writes:

sd is right, you can be credentialed for your intellectual productivity by publishing papers. School is indeed boring because it credentials you for doing ordinary boring jobs with ambiguous instructions year after year.

Brad Hutchings writes:

This looks like "Bryan's Median Student Theory".

James writes:

Yes, I am that median student.

By the way, does anyone know of an economics exam I could take to prove my competence to potential employers? I'd really, really, really like to avoid going back to school if it is at all possible.

PJens writes:

I was taught that performance = motivation * ability, or: P=M*A. No surprise to me that people who are not motivated do not perform well in school.

cjl writes:

One of my favorite quotes:

"I just don't like going to school."
--Jason Williams, explaining why he dropped out of his 3rd college in 3 years to enter the NBA draft in 1998

William Newman writes:

You can slice the data more finely than that, too. Given the choice to attend college (and to stick it out and graduate), what about the choice between majors? Why don't more people go into the highly-valued ones? I don't have the statistics to back it up, but my casual impression is that "people hate school" extends to "people especially hate engineering school," enough to pass up sizable salary premiums (though not 90%, I think).

Christina writes:

Lectures are great! It's the commitment to studying and doing homework that makes school so obnoxious to me. I've got a lot I want to do. I don't want to spend an additional 2+ hours of studying for every hour of lecture.

Most jobs that high school grads get don't require any additional attention once they're off the clock. Plus, they are are getting paid to work, not paying to do homework as college students do.

Dr. T writes:

I agree with ajay. I love learning but hated a number of poorly taught classes (including most of the classes in my first two years of medical school). The majority of teachers bore the majority of students. This starts in grade school and continues through all phases of education.

I tried to break out of that mold when I started teaching. I required students to read the best text I could find, gave them clear-cut learning objectives, used lecture time to amplify and clarify the text, and wrote challenging exams that also imparted information. I would have loved being in my class! Unfortunately, only a handful of students felt that way. Nearly all the graduate students and medical students had learned to excel in the pre-existing educational model of memorizing facts transmitted via a boring lecture and regurgitating them via multiple choice exams. They did not want a more interesting class if it required more work.

I conclude that, in some cases, the students themselves are partly to blame for the mediocrity of teaching.

pic2 writes:

I find Ajay's idea quite facinating. Does he suggest that we allow each individual public school to operate as an idependent learning facility? I must agree that it sounds great in theory. Allowing the directors of each school to cater to the needs of their students seems like the perfect solution. My only problem is that if we are going to expect our principals to act as CEO's of our schools, we will have to compensate them accordingly and of course they must be educated accordingly. Which will only cause more controversy.

Ajay writes:

pic2, you don't go far enough. You're still tied to the concept of public schools, I favor a completely private education system. There is room for regulation- for example, the government may mandate that certain topics like creationism or eugenics cannot be taught- but education would be completely privately funded. In my critique above, I tried to stick to highlighting stupidities that could have been changed decades ago. The truth is that, with the use of PCs and the internet, education will be radically transformed in far more fundamental ways. If you want to see canned lectures by the very few people who can actually bring something to that method of communication, you can download the videos over the internet. You could have a much more customizable curriculum, by having students choose only the subjects that they want to study (you can always encourage them to study extraneous subjects by offering further certification, rather than the monolithic degree programs that now exist).

If you want to know the value of the current degree programs, look at how they're received by others when a graduate leaves school. Most people only look at the brand name of the school, a few look at GPA which could be an indicator of relative ability but isn't really (a small amount of employers look for certain technical skills but the point of a student-customizable curriculum is to allow students to focus only on these technical skills if they choose to). The upshot is that a high school or college education is largely ignored after you've gone through it, except as a checkmark to put on your job application or resume for certain jobs. It has become a rite of passage without a purpose and large amounts of money are spent with no conception of how what is being taught will ever help or influence the student. This is allowed to happen because most students and their parents have no conception of what education is or what it's supposed to do and the few that have the power to change education are only interested in lining their pockets and maintaining the status quo. Well, their time has come. The internet and the PC give people the tools to create radical change in every information industry- look at what's happening in the media industries nowadays with the newspapers dying and video going to the internet- and education is one of the fundamental information industries, perhaps the easiest to upend as it has sat fat and unchanged for decades because of government regulation.

jaim klein writes:

The observation fits my life experience. In Argentina in the sixties (when it was still a very rich country), university education was free and we students got free alimentation, books, etc. Everybody with a high school diploma was admitted. The only requirement was to pass three exams per year to keep your status as student. Universities hired excellent Spanish and Italian lecturers. The library was free, it has a palatial reading hall with green shaded lights and books on everything. Yet it was always empty, as were most classes.

I dont think people hated schools. They were just not interested. They would not read a book even if the Government paid them.

BTW high culture was subsidized and tickets to the Teatro Colon were almost free. No one from my barrio ever went to a ballet or concert.

I dont know if you and Brad are pompous or boring as lecturers, but you can rest assured that it has nothing to do with young people avoiding school. It is not your fault. It is their fault. Seriously.

Robert Sperry writes:

Only semi relevent...but its faster to link to big concetual and data rich sources that try and correct half a dozen different claims...

The education blog sphere (at least a part of it) has been abuz of late with the work of Siegfried (Zig) Engelmann , the method of Direct Instruction in general, and a large educational experiment from the 1970's called Project Follow through (and the book he is writing aout it). In the event that you are not familiar with this, you may want to add it to your knowledge base.

And a good blog to start from would be:

My short summary would be, there is a demonstrated process to educate people even at the low end of the SES-IQ scale. But the methodology requires a rejection of most everthing that ed-schools teach.

2/22/2007 12:29 AM

George writes:

You, being the daft geeks you look like, are missing a huge point. Idiots hate school. The stupid nerds who go to school to be bored abused and bullied hate it.

For many, it gives you social interaction, food for your curiosity, an opportunity to challenge authority in its face, sex, love, more of it, just general fun.....

Which in the grand scheme of things is ultimately much more valuable (not sure about your values, geeks) than the money you get in monthly. (Incidentally, cause I know that'll be your first thought, judging by your mature student appearance, I probably earn about six to eleven times what you guys do togehter)

Mensarefugee writes:

Our friend George here wouldnt understand freedom if he was hit in the face with it.

Hes quite happy forcing everyone else to pander to his wants.

Come back soon George!

Lauren writes:

George, Mensarefugee,

Please remember that name-calling and ad hominem remarks are discouraged on EconLog. Please stick to the topic of the post and avoid descending into snideness, personal attacks, or crude generalities directed at the bloggers, other commenters, or outsiders. We particularly expect frequent commenters--and good writers such as the two of you--to set a high standard!

If you do not understand this policy, please feel free to email us at


The Editor

dearieme writes:

".....requires a rejection of most everthing that ed-schools teach": but we all know that already.

Phil writes:

sd, robin,

Suppose I credential myself without a Ph.D. by writing and publishing papers. Would that get me a teaching/researching position as easily as if I had published those papers with a Ph.D.?

I'd think that most people who become credentialed don't do so not just because they love doing economics research in their spare time, but in order to hopefully make a living doing so.

Heather writes:

I disagree that the best explanation is that most people hate school. As noted by an earlier response, most people with high IQs go to college while those with low IQs do not. The explanation that people hate school may be the reason an individual gives, but the reason they typically hate it is that it is too difficult. It is the same reason that so many people drop out of engineering, which typically looses 50% of the people that are interested. The individuals studying it cannot understand the concepts and do not pass the classes. I have worked with some of these people and their inability to pass a class is not from lack of effort, nor from lack of individual attention from professors, classmates, and TAs. They cannot pass because the material does not make sense to them, no matter how it is presented.

That said, there are many students that I have gone to school with that delay beginning because they were tired of school when they finished high school. High school gives you the basics, but is incredibly boring and discourages students from continuing on with their education. The older students I know took some time to figure out that they weren't getting paid what they would like and to understand what subjects interested them. For the most part, these were the people that I found were the most interested in their education and were the most excited with school.

Aaron writes:

In past generations, students who were not interested in learning and were not cut out for academic work left school well before high school graduation. Now that schooling is compulsory until the age of 16, it should be no suprise that the average student is less interested in academic instruction. This is not to say that compulsory schooling laws are unwarranted ... it is merely a potential explanation for the trend that many educators have observed.

A few commenters have mentioned that certification exams are a more efficient method of signalling a certain level of competancy to employers. But it's not all about signalling. For those of us who genuinely enjoy learning, academic instruction is the good we seek. Not the type of academic instruction seen in high school which is usually boring and stifling but the type of learning that occurs in graduate school.

william newman writes:

Phil writes:

"sd, robin, Suppose I credential myself without a Ph.D. by writing and publishing papers. Would that get me a teaching/researching position as easily as if I had published those papers with a Ph.D.?"

Probably not as easily, but it seems not to be completely impossible; look at David Friedman and Emanuel Derman.

I'd expect it to be uncommon, though. Publishing papers is a lot of work and takes a lot of time, and it seems considerably easier to get into graduate school with tuition paid and a stipend than it is to get a teaching position afterwards. I'd expect that even if there were no difference in the reception of papers, it would be unusual for people to pass up the paid graduate school paper-writing launchpad. (Of course, if Goldman Sachs will pay you two or three orders of magnitude more than a graduate stipend, I can see the temptation.:-)

It's also possible to do physics work outside the usual academic institutions, but even with the shining example of Einstein to motivate people (or maybe just intimidate them:-) it's been pretty uncommon for a century or so.

Of course David Friedman is the product of incomparable home schooling.

James writes:

Aaron writes:

"A few commenters have mentioned that certification exams are a more efficient method of signalling a certain level of competancy to employers. But it's not all about signalling. For those of us who genuinely enjoy learning, academic instruction is the good we seek."

I think that for 90% of students, it is all about signalling. The main reasons these people attend college are to enjoy the legendary social experiences and to "get a good job." Thus, the question arises whether the current system is the most efficient way to achieve those goals. The first goal could easily be achieved by working and living in Dewey Beach for a few summers. I believe that a more efficient way to achieve the second goal would be to provide competency exams, much like the CFA exam, which could be passed based upon knowledge obtained from any means. This would alleviate the upward pressure on tuition for those who truly want to go to a university to learn by removing marginal students from the pool of those seeking university education, therefore making it less costly for everyone to achieve their objectives.

Also, the present system erects significant barriers to the efficient allocation of labor when the ability to signal is not available. If an individual has obtained the knowledge of a Ph.D. Economist via his own individual study, there needs to be a way for him to signal that fact to employers, academic institutions, etc. It is a deadweight loss for him and for society to spend 5 of his prime working years not being productive and re-learning things he already knows just so he can signal his competence to potential employers. The only way in which this unnecessary investment improves social welfare is by creating the signal that allows that individual's talents to be recognized and allocated more efficiently. However, $120,000 and 5 years of foregone productive work is a steep price to pay for a signal that could be achieved through a competency exam that would cost only $500 to administer.

Steve writes:

"However, $120,000 and 5 years of foregone productive work is a steep price to pay for a signal that could be achieved through a competency exam that would cost only $500 to administer."

5 years? Don't you mean 4?

Signaling is too facile an explanation. Although certification exams are useful and ought to be used more, writing papers, problem sets, and taking multiple exams such as the two or three per term, per course that you have to do, burns the knowledge a lot more deeply into the brain.

I took the econ GRE prior to grad school, but the knowledge I learned and retained in prepping for it was miniscule compared to what I learned once I started taking classes. As someone said above, it's the confirmation of knowledge that is important.

Steve writes:

Oh, I see you were talking about the Ph.D. further down. You confused me because the Ph.D. does not require tuition. You get paid to earn it with the quid pro quo of research assistant and teaching duties. Everything else I said still holds. In grad school you are not relearning knowledge, you are added to your store of it.

JL writes:

Bryan is correct that both education and intellectual ability increase earnings. Interestingly, Winship and Korenman showed that each factor has an independent effect on earnings and both factors have an even more significant "multiplier" effect in combination. See:

(The entire chapter is worth reading, but the conclusion provides a nice summary.)

Kyle writes:

I have never liked school. High school was ok just because sports gave me something to look forward to at school, but the school part never did anything for me. College is about the same. Most colleges have all these pointless classes that you have to take just so the universities get more money out of the students. Why should a construction major have to take classes such as english, or stress management (this is my case). These are things we took every year in grade school, and now they make up pay for taking them. If colleges just let students take what they needed and not all the classes that don't pertain to their major students might like school better.

Zach Phillips writes:

I'm a college student and I hate school. Why? because in my experience all of the things that have ever been beneficial to me to know, I've learned on my own. Right now I'm doing web design with some people on campus using the skills that I learned in my spare time back in high school. My main job as a computer lab assistant I got as a result of knowing how to work with computers. I surely didn't learn how to do that at school where we had technology that was behind 4-5 years.

Now at college It's the same thing as high school all over again. Basically I'm paying a ton of cash to have teachers tell me things that I already know, or things I don't want to learn about. I know that I'm not going to have a good experience if I have a negative attitude and write things off before I give them a chance, but I've decided a long time ago that sitting in a class looking at a chalk board or a power point presentation is probably the most boring way that you could teach something. Yet that's the structure of most of my classes.

I'm all for learning new things, even if I'm not particularly interested in them, but it seems like 90% of the time, the college professors don't even make an attempt to motivate kids to learn. As a student, I'm not motivated to even pay attention if the teacher acts like he/she is bored, or makes zero attempt to relate to the class.

The reason kids hate school is because education is stuck in a stagnant place and it's effectiveness is severely dwindling.

Cortney writes:

I am a college student and i like it, but Kyle is right. It's the classes that they make you take, that don't do much for you, that makes people hate school. You would think that college would be different from high school and get right to the point of your major and not wait till you are a junior or senior in college, but it's not and it's ridiculous. I haven't chosen a major yet, but i'm certainly not in a hurry because i have to get all these b.s. classes out of the way anyways.

Ajay writes:

I want to add that it is facile for educators to claim that people hate school. It's like a personal trainer claiming that people hate the gym. The truth is that learning and working out require effort, effort that many people don't want to put in, certainly not sustained over a short period of time. It is up to the educators not to waste their students' time with useless subjects or wildly outdated teaching methods, just as a physical trainer can't just make their customers run a marathon every time they show up or do some crazy soviet-era calisthenics that no modern athlete does anymore. To split the argument up along the lines of 'students hate school, no they don't' is a false dichotomy that just leaves both sides feeling that they're right. The truth is that learning requires effort and most people are somewhat lazy, whether it's exercising or learning, but those are the simple facts of life. What is crazy is the absurd mental calisthenics that the current education system puts its subjects through, mostly because educators are too stupid to understand what they're doing and lack the imagination to come up with something better.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top