Bryan Caplan  

How Schooling is Like Garbage Collection

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Schooling has a high private financial return. But most people don't finish college; many don't even finish high school. Lots of economists are baffled by these facts, and spin complex theories to explain them.

At the same time, however, I've never heard an economist grapple with a parallel puzzle: Garbage collection has a high private financial return. But most people don't even try to be garbage collectors. The explanation for this pattern is all too obvious: The high wages of garbage collectors are a compensating differential for the unpleasantness of the job.

Is this analogy ridiculous? Well, if you've always been a good student, it probably seems that way. If you're an economist - or a blog reader - you probably liked school. I bet that many of you were formerly known as "teacher's pet."

My point is that you're probably an outlier; your introspection about whether "people like school" is not to be trusted. When this happens, it's very helpful to look at representative surveys. Here's one I came across from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Fun fact: The most popular reason for dropping out is sheer boredom!

Nearly half (47 percent) said a major reason for dropping out was that classes were not interesting. These young people reported being bored and disengaged from high school. Almost as many (42 percent) spent time with people who were not interested in school.
One big difference between schooling and garbage collection, admittedly, is that most drop-outs say they regret dropping out, but very few people regret not becoming garbage collectors. But I suspect that a lot of this is just social desirability bias: You're supposed to say that you wish you finished school, but no one expects you to say that you wish you'd become a garbageman. Idly wishing you'd endured a extra year or two of excrutiating boredom is one thing; actually enduring it is another. For the tens of millions of people who really hate school, the extra money just isn't worth it.

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COMMENTS (27 to date)
Alex J. writes:

I can attest that one can be interested by this blog and yet suffer from perilous boredom in high school.

Robinson writes:

Brilliant. Make sure to note this in your (hopefully) upcoming book on education.

I intuit that your explanation (social desirability bias) is off. I think a more likely explanation falls within bounded rationality, and the more appropriate analogy is whether poor old people regret not managing their finances better.

Also, I think people are less likely to become garbage men because they aren't as exposed to the financial benefits. But I think (like being a unionized janitor) that the benefits are widely known within working class communities. However, I'm less confident in this explanation, and I think it could be an enligtening empiricial question.

Horatio writes:

While I certainly agree that nerds underestimate the boredom most people endure in high school, I believe many drop outs lie about their trues reasons for not finishing school. Many of them were probably too dumb to handle the material and would rather claim boredom rather than stupidity as the culprit.

jsalvati writes:

Are there any studies that look into whether people underestimate/misestimate the returns to going to school (both college and high school)?
That always struck me as a plausible explanation.

Bryan Caplan writes:
jsalvati writes:

Are there any studies that look into whether people underestimate/misestimate the returns to going to school (both college and high school)?
That always struck me as a plausible explanation.

Yes - if I recall correctly, people actually seem to overestimate the return to college.
dearieme writes:

In my day they had a trick to ensure that those of us who, broadly, enjoyed school had some glimmering of how hateful it was for many others. They made us do Latin.

mthomas writes:

I just happen to be reading this part of James Buchanan today and thought that it applied to your "Social Desirability Bias" :

"As and example, the individual may cast a ballot-box vote for the enforcement of prohibition at the same time that he visits his bootlegger, without feeling that he is acting inconsistently." - p. 366, Buchanan, 1954 - Individual Choice in Voting and the Market. J.P.E.

merely noted for general consumption.

Daniel writes:

I think of myself as a nerd, and I was very bored in high school. Either the material is uninteresting, or the class moves too slowly. College has been much better.

This is true not only for college, but also for high and middle school as well. In fact, this is something I've been talking about for a while, which is that middle and high schools are no longer designed to properly educate the majority of students, who have no desire to go to college. If middle and high schools would prepare students for auto repair, plumbing, electronics, etc. -- which is to say, things that students actually see value in and aren't bored by -- they would stay in school. I have a Ph.D in the humanities and a M.A. in English, and I taught English/Literature in middle and high school and I was asked all the time how reading some great work of literature was going to benefit them. I could have given the standard pat answers, but I chose to be honest with them and tell them that it wouldn't benefit them at all, since most of them weren't going to pay any attention and wouldn't ever pick up a book again after they graduated -- but that it could benefit them if they wanted it to, by showing them more of the world and more about people than they could experience otherwise. It could benefit them, but most likely it would not. Certainly I never benefited from anything I found boring -- and it often wasn't the teachers' faults I was bored. I dropped out of a M.S. degree in molecular biology because I was bored to tears, so I can relate. I learned a lot when I wasn't bored, and nothing once I was. Turns out I needed something more complex than the hard sciences, for which literature and the humanities fit the bill -- especially my interdisciplinary approach to them. So when I'm asked if I regret having dropped out of my MS program, I say "absolutely not." Of course, I do have the advantage of having a Ph.D. now, so there's no social stigma attached, either.

Extra schooling also doesn't guarantee you extra money. I have a Ph.D., and I don't have any extra money at all. Seriously underemployed is more like it.

Alex writes:

When people make the decision to discontinue schooling, they are at an age when short-sighted, irrational and impulsive decisions are most common: late teens / early twenties. Instead of focusing only on programs to keep kids in school, it may be more valueable to spend more time creating a path to finish in later years.

Glen writes:

I was bored in HS. Fear kept me from dropping out. Went to college because I noticed that people who didn't tended to work the hardest and be least compensated. By getting my college degree, I get to be lazy and paid well.

I have more than once said that I regret not getting into garbarge collection.

Its a decent salary, physical work (a positive), and you have most of your daylight hours to surf, visit the library and spend with your family, etc. These high-salary, high- IQ jobs take up most daylight, deliver much stress and, after the next tax bill, will have decreasing monetary rewards.

Josh Adams writes:

I was valedictorian in my high school, and was just absurdly bored. I compensated by reading my own books during class, and telling my teachers that whined about it to talk to me when I wasn't leading the class. If I had been second or third in the class, this tactic wouldn't have worked. If I were going to a public school, it probably wouldn't have worked.

I blame the way school is taught. I knew what was best for me in that situation, but save for my enormous brain I would've been forced to stop getting smarter and pay attention to a lesson I didn't need.

I'm young enough (25) to remember how prominent this problem was with my friends, and how irritated they were that my appeal-to-winnitude worked with the teachers.

Jayson Virissimo writes:

I was incredibly bored with school until reaching university. I never learned to study properly because there was no need; I got good grades anyway. When I started my second year of college and started getting bad grades I had to teach myself to study. I'm about to start my senior year and plan to attend graduate school for economics, but I don't blame those who drop out earlier. Some of my unhappiest times were at school being bored out of my mind. If I hadn't discovered something I could get excited about, (economics) I might have dropped out myself.

Greg N writes:

Data from the BLS on wages of garbage collectors.

Percentile 10% 25% 50% 75% 90%
Hourly Wage $8.21 $10.59 $14.15 $18.48 $24.19
Annual Wage $17,070 $22,030 $29,420 $38,440 $50,320

Compared to all occupations
10 25 median 75 90
16060 20920 31410 49640 75910

So the median for garbage collectors is 29 thousand. That is less than the median for all occupations. How big is the compensating differential?

mensarefugee writes:

"I have more than once said that I regret not getting into garbarge collection."

Having worked bad menial jobs, and talked to Garbage collectors on a regular basis...

You do NOT want to be picking up half torn garbages bags with pee and diapers in them.

Your points may well apply to other menial jobs though. I worked on an organic farm for 6 months because I wanted experience to start my own (figured out a way to make money from it). It was good for the body.

Ended up not doing it due to lack of start-up cash, alien people/culture (99% of farmers are white where I am, Im not) and too much risk for a city boy. If I had a brother instead of 2 sisters - I might be providing your lunch today. :)

quadrupole writes:

I dropped out of high school, and it was among the best decisions I ever made.

I dropped out because I was completely and utterly bored to tears, and it was consuming time I could have been putting to a productive use (please note, 'a productive use' not 'a more productive use', the useful product of high school was *zero*). So I dropped out, and spent the time more wisely. I home schooled myself, worked a bit, started a computer consulting firm, home schooled my younger brother, etc, etc, etc... lots of cool stuff, learned a *hell* of a lot (certainly more than I'd learned in the previous 4-5 years of compulsory incarceration^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H education).

Of course wandering off to college a year later (at 17) and getting degrees in mathematics and physics probably helped... :)

Matt writes:

In high school, the classroom is outdated, but still used as a babysitting mechanism.

I would drop out of high school today, or go to the individual study program.

Paul Zrimsek writes:

Dropping out of school is easy to regret, because if you'd stuck it out it would be safely behind you now anyway. But if you'd become a garbageman you'd still be a garbageman today.

Skeptikos writes:

This is why I'm not in college.

I was working on an engineering degree, and the work was easy. So easy, in fact, that I was bored out of my mind. The thought that I was spending considerable time and money on something I could learn more efficiently on my own was maddening.

Sure, I'd get better pay with a degree, but it's just not worth four years of torture and drudgery.


if you were bored, then you should have tried to get into a harder major. That's what I did. (yes, when done properly, the humanities is much, much harder than the hard sciences, due to the formers' complexity)

ws1835 writes:

I read sci-fi books through most of my high school courses (including the honors studies) just to stay sane. Thankfully my teachers appreciated my 'A' grade enough to ignore it. I graduated 7th in a class of 250 or so without ever really making my brain work too hard.

One common thread in almost everyone's response here.... the general structure of modern middle/high school simply does not serve the needs of most students. The bright/gifted students are forced to crawl through the material at a frustratingly slow rate, resulting in boredom and disincentive. Whereas those who are not college bound are forced to endure the facade of a 'liberal education' that has little, or no, applicability to their future vocational career. After all.....does reading Shakespeare's sonnets really make you a better grocery cashier or improve your truck driving?

I strongly favor restructuring mid/high school to teach basic skills (3R's, household econ, business math, civics, etc). Then shave two years off the curriculum and let the kids out to pursue either college or specialized vocational training.

Ekonomix writes:

Well said. there are lots of dropouts simply because they are not smart/hardworking enough.


robert writes:

Of course high-school dropouts said they did not complete high school because they were bored. Lord knows, it wasn't because they lacked dedication or had difficulty with the work or because of anything they did wrong or lacked.

Andrea Williams writes:

I understand your analogy and I get your point. However, I disagree with your last statement that people who drop out of school say that they regret dropping out of school because society tells them that this is something they should regret. I think about the type of person I was at the age of 16 when I could have dropped out of school. I am completely different now at the age of 23. I can't say that the decisions that I made at the age of 16 were good decisions because I had no real life experience. People who drop out of school at 16 have no real life experience. Then, 10, 15 years down the road, they realize that life would have been easier had they finished school.

The number one cause for divorce in America is financial problems. Most people who drop out of school have financial problems. This means that they are more likely to get divorced. Divorces and debt are very hard on a person. If the person had stayed in school for one or two more years, this would possibly be two things that they might avoid, making their lives easier. So, once again, I don't think that people say they regret dropping out of school because society wants them to say that, but really because they realize that life could be easier had they stayed in school.

Eileen writes:

Adding on to what Robert said: Saying that you were bored at school (even if the truth is that it was hard or the subject was not something you enjoy) is a popular untruth because a lot of bright students say that and it signals that you were bright enough to be bored by school.

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