Bryan Caplan  

Get the Best Education in the World, Absolutely Free!

The Next Book I Won't Be Writi... Page-ing Robin Hanson...

Here's Robin Hanson making a point I always tell my labor students: The best education in the world is already free of charge. Just go to the best university in the world and start attending classes. Stay as long as you want, and study everything that interests you. No one will ever "card" you. The only problem is that, no matter how much you learn, there won't be any record you were ever there.

Robin actually did this:

As a researcher at NASA Ames Lab in the late 1980s, I found it easy to sit in on classes at nearby Stanford. I sat in on many classes in many departments, participating often in class discussions. I never applied for admission, or paid tuition, but no one ever complained. One professor even wrote me a letter of recommendation based on my work for his class.

So anyone can learn at the very best schools for free, if they are willing to forego the credential. This free ride would probably stop if more than a few people took advantage of it. But in fact almost no one is actually interested in just learning, without the credential.

And thus, we have another deep puzzle that the signaling model of education can explain, and the human capital model can't.

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COMMENTS (21 to date)
William Newman writes:

I don't think this is as much of a puzzle as you make it out to be. It's especially not a puzzle compared to how few people learn from the library.

Even if you didn't feel uncomfortable in principle bumming a service which is produced for a fee, I doubt you could feel safe in practice asking many questions in class, or get your homework graded. If you limited yourself to passively sitting in a lecture hall, what would you get that you couldn't get in a library? I can see the lecture is different, but I don't see why it is qualitatively superior.

My personal impression (in the USA, born 1965) is that of the population who can afford physical access to the lectures (visa, budget to live in the neighborhood and commit 30ish hours per week) and have the aptitude and discipline to teach themselves, a very large fraction also find it basically affordable to go all the way and become students. And even as someone who's been pretty good about teaching myself stuff, I don't need to appeal to certification advantages to explain why they do that: I learned less from lectures than (from books and) from questions, TAs, homework, and my fellow students. I don't think it's completely unreasonable to balk at the cost of college, as your co-blogger has, but I doubt the right way to economize is to sneak into the lectures. Instead I'd suggest either going to work in a field where one learns as one goes along (sales?) or, if you want to educate yourself with self-discipline and a small budget, pick a field where quality is relatively easy to recognize and not too expensive to prototype (engineering, writing, math, programming, film-making; not philosophy, education, political science, or, alas, many kinds of economics) and spend the time on prototypes and a library.

There are students such as Robin Hanson (including, IIRC, Julian Schwinger) who are impressively stubborn about their study priorities and still make quite a success of themselves. But they generally choose to become students (possibly because otherwise they'd have to beat the givers of scholarships off with a stick) and I doubt their choice is entirely because of their sheep-like docility and their calculations about credentialism.

Bruce G Charlton writes:

The idea is worth pondering, but even to read about doing it makes me feel uncomfortable.

It is dishonest, isn't it? And training oneself in habitual, systematic dishonesty is surely a bad thing.

I can't help but feel it would be corrosive of character to engage in this type of activity.

Maybe it's just because I am English, but I personally wouldn't feel right about systematically stealing an education in this fashion.

My point is that the apparent rarity of this crime may not prove what RH and BC think it proves.

Scott Clark writes:

I don't know if I would classify this activity as stealing an education. Though I would certainly see myself deferring to the paying customers when it came to the use of class time or the professor's time.

I wonder how much of a private university's operating budget is dervied from tuition as opposed to income earned on its endowment (State schools have tax related issues that would complicate the story). If the university can function entirely on its endowment income, and pure education, once recieved, can raise your productivity and thus your earnings, then you can donate back that portion of the higher income attributable to university education, perhaps with a little extra to cover time and forgone endowment interest. In such a case, you would not be a thief, if education alone was the value, rather than the certificate, this arrangement may even be beneficial for the university, and certainly for the student.

On the other hand, if education adds nothing or not much more than was already present in the student to begin with, and the value resides in having the credential, than the university should do everything it can to extract that price up front.

Mike writes:

Years ago when I was preparing for my PhD I had to leave the university (on the east coast) and finish doing my studies nearer to my home (on the west coast). My committee chair arranged with some of his friends at a nearby university (Berkeley) to have my comprehensive exams administered at the Berkeley site. I took the exams over a four day period in a small conference room next to the department secretary's office (complete with daily noon-time vocals from the Hari Krishnas outside the window).

I even had to pick up an extra area of study and was given an extraordinarily long reading list to prepare. I approached a Berkeley professor that was teaching a seminar in the topic and got permission to attend his seminar which he held in his house. I successfully completed my studies and will be infinitely appreciative of Berkeley's hospitality.

Why do I tell this story? Academics are hopeless romantics when it comes to their profession and from their personal point of view do not view it as anything but advancing intellectual knowledge rather than charging a fee for service. Besides, I have always been a tax paying resident of California and don't see the harm in utilizing the resources my taxes go to pay as long as you get permission. Thanks again to Berkeley!!

John writes:

You'll get carded at NYU before you enter any buildings, but if you just get some purple coloring on some other form of id you might be able to sneak in. Once you're in the building though, sky's the limit.

Snark writes:


I took the exams over a four day period in a small conference room next to the department secretary's office (complete with daily noon-time vocals from the Hari Krishnas outside the window).

LOL! You should be just as thankful to the Krishnas as to the Berkeley staff. Their incessant Maha Mantra chant probably induced a state of pure God-consciousness in you and, no doubt, a deeper understanding of the exam questions...

Self-education without regard to some form of pay-off is purely an intellectual pursuit. Like honesty, it is it's own reward. Years after studying engineering and business, I became obsessed with economics. I sought out every book or article I could find on the subject, going so far as to purchase the text, Mathematics for Economists, in an attempt to learn what was commonly considered at the time to be "the language of economics" (My family and friends became gravely concerned about my obsession at this point.). Now, having acquired a fairly extensive (read "expensive") library, I support my habit almost entirely with blogging.

Is there professional help for those of us who suffer from dismal science OCD?

Michael E Sullivan writes:

I've done this many times. Back before it was incredibly cheap to get on the internet and vast amounts of education was available online, I would often go into random universities and ask to audit classes. I would usually just ask the prof, and I never got turned down once. I did tend to defer to other students, and I always made it clear to the prof that I wasn't enrolled, but mostly they were quite happy to have another interested(ing) student in the class.

For one music composition class I took at Hartt, it was very important to get into the school library, and I was actually able to register with the school as a community student and I paid something like $50-100 to audit the grad level class. I think most universities have programs like this so even it isn't free, it's still incredibly cheap. The credits are expensive, just taking the classes is not.

I think it's a bit harder to do it incognito these days with most of the buildings on campuses locked down, but most places auditing is still very cheap and you don't have to be enrolled in a degree program to do it.

Phil writes:

Back in second year, a friend and I walked blind into a PSYCH 101 exam room and wrote a midterm. We were not taking or auditing the course, and made up fake names and ID numbers.

We both passed.

This is just an anecdote, and probably doesn't exactly illustrate the point, but I think attending lectures and being educated are two different things.

dearieme writes:

If he'd handed in essays he might have learned to spell. "forgo".

ryan writes:

I wonder if this argument explains too much. Isn't it kind of easy to think up examples of classes that people pay for but cannot plausibly be taking for credentialing purposes? I'm thinking of things like yoga classes, dance classes, or cooking classes.

Floccina writes:

Now you can even take MIT classes free online. MIT knows that they sell credentials not education.

Mallory writes:

I never really thought about receiving education this way, although it is true. The smaller universities, such as the one I attend, may notice your presence a little more than the larger universities, but I don't think it would cause too much of a problem. Does it really matter if you have the credentials to go along with the knowledge? Isn't getting the knowledge more important? Professors may start to complain about people taking advantage of them, but if they were sincere teachers who truly cared for learning, they wouldn't care. I'm not sure if I would consider this stealing education or not. Is education something that you can steal? Can you steal knowledge? If this is the only way to better yourself - go for it! Take every course that interests you and fill your head with knowledge!

SheetWise writes:

dearieme writes:
If he'd handed in essays he might have learned to spell. "forgo".

It certainly didn't teach dearieme how to puntuate.

Keri Morgret writes:

Another option, perfectly legal, is to check out the Open Educational Resources available online. Many universities are making their class materials (even videos in some cases) available online for use and re-use under Creative Commons or other open licenses.

http://www.oercommons is a comprehensive resource of such materials, for both universities and K12. MIT, Berkeley, Tufts, and dozens of others all have content available online for free.

Keri Morgret writes:

A correction on the previous post. The link is:

Richard Pointer writes:

In one of my theology courses, the professor asked would anyone take courses without the chance to have a diploma at the end. He reminded us that the campus was open and that the school allowed people to sit in on classes. Not many people found the idea of learning without the chance of credentials very appealing. The class saw that what matters is social recognition of achievements. Something about a tree falling in an empty forest and all that business.

Andy writes:

What about grades serving as a commitment device? If you don't get the grade you know you won't do all the tedious work that even useful learning often demands. I just can't believe that all those hours I spent in the classroom were _totally_ useless, but I would have been in there far fewer hours had it not been for the grades.

jaim klein writes:

In got my professional credentials long ago and I have a permanent need to update my knowledge. Hearing formal university lectures would be a very inefficient way to do it.

Nathan T. Freeman writes:

My last semester at NYU, I took classes from Israel Kirzner and Mario Rizzo in this exact way. Couldn't afford tuition -- just went to the classes and took the exams anyway.

(-_-) writes:

There is always an opportunity cost.

Regina writes:

I don't see it as stealing an education at all. If the professor doesn't ask you to leave or doesn't care to grade your work, then whatever take advantage of the opportunity. If you ask a lot of questions, then as a college student, I would enjoy having you in class whether you pay or not. I'm usually more interested in leaving those boring classes that the university makes me take and if their is someone there to ask questions that I should, but don't care to, then you will be helping me out.

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