Bryan Caplan  

Table of Contents for The Case Against Education

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Once you figure out the perfect structure for your book, it writes itself.  Unfortunately, figuring out that perfect structure is extremely difficult.  Here's the tentative structure for my book in progress, The Case Against Education.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1: The Magic of Education

Chapter 2: Useless Studies with Big Payoffs: The Puzzle Is Real

Chapter 3: Signaling Explained

Chapter 4: Measuring Signaling

Chapter 5: Who Cares If It's Signaling?  The Private, Familial, and Social Returns to Education

Chapter 6: Is Education Good for the Soul?

Chapter 7: We Need Lots Less Education

Chapter 8: We Need More Vocational Education


The book's basic plot:

The labor market heavily rewards educational credentials even though academic curriculum is seriously disconnected from the jobs people actually do.  The best explanation for this strange fact is that education is a strong signal of pre-existing worker productivity. (chapter 1)

While the return to education is often overstated, it remains high after making various statistical adjustments.  Degrees in useless subjects really do substantially raise wages. (chapter 2) 

Education signals a package of desirable employee traits: intelligence of course, but also conscientiousness and conformity.  Many people dismiss the signaling model on a priori grounds, but educational signaling is at least as plausible as many widely accepted forms of of statistical discrimination. (chapter 3) 

Empirically distinguishing signaling from human capital is notoriously difficult.  But literatures on the sheepskin effect, employer learning, and the international return to education confirm that signaling is moderately to highly important. (chapter 4) 

How much education should you get?  The human capital-signaling distinction isn't important at the individual level, but the policy implications are enormous. (chapter 5) 

The non-pecuniary benefits of education are over-rated, and the non-pecuniary costs (especially boredom) are under-rated.  There's a massive selection bias because the kind of people who hate school rarely publicize their complaints. (chapter 6)

The most important implication of the signaling model is that we spend way too much money on education.  Education spending at all levels should be drastically reduced, and people should enter the labor force at much younger ages. (chapter 7)

The education we offer should be more vocational.  Especially for weaker students, vocational education has a higher private and social return than traditional academic education. (chapter 8)

I welcome your comments on organization, and well as any thoughts on my sins of omission or commission.

COMMENTS (30 to date)
Mercer writes:

Military service could also signal desirable traits. Any data on if employers value it?

Major cost of longer education is less time to start a family for women.

Since men like schooling less then women extending schooling requirements mean more women end up without a compatible marriage partner. This is true for black women today and will happen soon for whites.

A simple thought writes:

I don't understand why you think that if the human capital story were true than the signalling story would then be false - what if people actually learned things in school, and having a degree is a signal that they had successfully learned. In that case you could find sheepskin effects (along with other evidence of signaling), but education would still be valuable.

Furthermore, society is probably really bad at figuring out early who "deserves" more education - what if it's better to over-educate the unqualified than under-educate the deserving?

Any book that talks about reforming the education system should to think seriously about the distributional consequences of doing so - it doesn't seem like you're planning on doing that, which is a shame.

I'm looking forward to it!

TM writes:

Regarding your chapter 7 summary that "Education spending at all levels should be drastically reduced" - I've frequently seen you make the case for this at the university level, but not much at the elementary / high school level. Can you elaborate on your thoughts here (or do I have to wait for the book)? Thanks.

John T. Kennedy writes:

If you simply got rid of publicly funded education would you expect to see more appropriate levels of education?

jseliger writes:

This may go under chapters 7 and 8, but it seems to me that you should comment on the structure and incentives of contemporary education systems and the problems of both. To me, getting the incentives better would be of great use.

One other idea: you may want to include a chapter on how the reader as an individual can or should respond to the problems in education. Self-education via the Internet? The acceptance of current educational institutions and paradigms because of their signaling power? Something else altogether?

On a separate but related note, I wrote an essay called "How to get your Professors’ Attention — along with Coaching or Mentoring" for my students after realizing some of the incentive problems in college and how those incentive problems mean students have to try especially hard to signal their own willingness and desire to learn.

Steve Sailer writes:

It looks good to me.

One caveat is that "The most important implication of the signaling model is that we spend way too much money on education" will get all the attention.

Joe Cushing writes:

It's all well and good to know that there is a lot of waste in education. I think anyone who goes to school and then gets a job already has most of your book figured out--like the 30 people with finance degrees I was hired with, a few weeks ago, doing retail credit analysis today. We don't use one thing taught after high school to do this job except for the things we were taught by our employer. Now I get to see people's debt every day. So many people have student loans. Back to my lead in--but how do you make the world change? We already know it's wasteful but who is going to tell their kid to go to vocational school instead of college?

The only way to change it is to make an appeal to employers. You have to make a case that employers could increase earnings by finding other ways to filter the hiring pool. That should be in your book if you really want to make a difference.

John Palmer writes:

I've been enjoying (and learning from) your posts about education. This book should be a hit.

One brief note: I expect/hope you will use "negative-sum game" in Chapter 7.

Paul Ralley writes:

re returns for education - I would love to see a calculation that excluded the effect of masters degrees for government employees (e.g. teachers / military) as these are potentially 'union driven' returns rather than signalling returns?

Similarly, here in the UK, a degree is required for paramedics for example, which used to be on the job training, so that probably increases the measured return?

regarding the costs - what about the net costs to parents? benefit is 'free' childcare; costs are loss of family time for homework, loss of family time for extra-curricula activities to get into a good university etc.

Surfisto writes:

Are you planning to look at other countries?
And within countries different classes of society. In Chile it is common for the upper class to enter the work force around 24-26 years old and very educated. I am curious if their productivity is correlated with the money and time spent on their education versus a lower income person.

Finch writes:

"Chapter 2: Useless Studies with Big Payoffs: The Puzzle Is Real"

Should be: "Chapter 2: Useless Degrees with Big Payoffs: The Puzzle Is Real".

The original sounds too much like you're trying to make fun of "Women's Studies" and things like that. And while I'm sure you consider them useless, I think you have a much broader definition than that. So you can avoid the apparent dig at feminists and minorities and get your point across better. It's important that people realize you mean "education that won't help you in your job or life, at least not cost-effectively," and not just "political stuff I don't agree with."

Also, when I first read that chapter title, I misinterpreted it as referring to academic studies, thinking you were about to criticize some of them that had been favorable to education. The second form is less susceptible to my error.

joeftansey writes:

Ch 7: We Need Lots Less Education

I may be tired, but this is at least awkward if not grammatically incorrect. Was it done on purpose? My intuition says it should be "We need a lot less education"...

Ken B writes:

It may seem off topic but I strongly recommend the documentary Note By Note. It is about the making a single Steinway piano, which takes a year. We see the process and especially the workers, who are mostly craftsman or semi-skilled doing rewarding and well paid work, passing along subtle skills. 80 minutes and Netflix has it.

@David R Henderson (if you are reading this): I am pretty confident you'll love this movie.

clay writes:

Society should develop a better system to judge and rank skill from job performance, particularly in computers, beyond college degrees.

Vocational education should expand to desirable jobs and not merely plumbing and mechanic work.

What does society really need more of? Most would argue that we need more science. Would a larger vocationally trained workforce help?

Floccina writes:

How about a mention of apprenticeship as a more productive alternative to school. Learning while working.

Floccina writes:

One more thing, along with vocational training I think that it would be good to also focus on information that will help people live a better life. Things like how to be a good consumer and avoid getting ripped off, how to cook, how to save and invest, simple physics and chemistry principles.

IMO signalling squeezes out useful education. I am amazed the number of college educated people that are scammed due to lacking simple knowledge of say the Carnot limit.

Another Bob writes:

Differentiate between schooling and education. Education is the change in knowledge as measured by change in behavior. Schooling is one mechanism among many for inculcating education. As schooling mechanisms improve (e.g. see Coursera) the costs of schooling change. Signals can be communicated by documented schooling or by direct measurement.

Perhaps we'll spend less on schooling AND, we'll also become more educated.

R. Richard Schweitzer writes:

It does appear that you conceive the function of "Education" to prepare or process the individual learners (or at least the bulk of them) for roles in an "economy" or "social Structure." It is your "end goal" that is shaping your text: Benefit to Society.

Does it occur to you that such objective may be exactly what has gone wrong with "Education" now that it has become "public?" It is now systematized processes of institutionalization of original civil (non-political, non-governmental) instrumentalities whose aims were to benefit the individuals. Institutionalization (like the guilds of old) results in their functions being determined by the "operators" of the institutions.

"Schooling," for example for children in the farming mid-west, was undertaken so that those children could do better for themselves and in their personal interactions, not to benefit the "needs of society" or improvement of the economy.

Today the USMA, perhaps the outstanding post-secondary establishment (certainly public), is able to train its students toward objectives of specific service and at the same time imbue them with learning that makes for a more complete individual, totally distinct from their immediate service functions, but potentially of the greatest value to the nation because it is of the greatest value to them as individuals. They become "better;" not for a specific or general function, but to be better and realize more of their potential as a human being.

No, I am not of the USMA; rather U.Va. starting back before WWII. Perhaps that's the trouble with my outlook.

Paul writes:

A thought I've had for some time is that in part the signaling may be just that the potential employee is 4+ years older, hopefully more mature, gotten partying out of their system, chose a mate to settle down with, less prone to moving shortly after being trained, etc. While there was a time in the country's history that a 14 year old was much more mature that isn't the case today. I recall reading that the 18-24 year old demographic tends to have the highest percentage of a number of problems. Perhaps in part employers would rather someone else deal with that. I did see a significant maturation in my own kids over that age range.

KendallB writes:

Any ideas on when the book will be ready? I'm waiting anxiously...

Collin writes:

Chapter 9 - Changing the Corporation Perception Of Signaling.

Seems to me that arguing against education should not be on the supply side (16 or 17 year old) but the demand side. Isn't the market about customer sovereignty and if Large Supra National Company A did not want a college degree then the suppliers would not get one. Is that Company A is overpaying their signaling employees and hire talented high school graduates?

Frankly, your audience appears to be a 16 or 17 year are the least powerful in the marketplace and they would likely look at needing to a degree to get a good job. (Also would a 16 year High School understand your book anyway?)

Roger Sweeny writes:

Like "a simple thought," I also think you should talk about "distributional consequences." However, my hypothesis is rather different from his.

As far as I know, there are scads of studies saying that the best predictor of how well someone does in school is ... family income! To the extent that success in school is made a prerequisite for success in life, we strengthen existing patterns of inequality. In the heartwarming fable most of us hold dear, school is a "ladder up." However, for most poor people today, it is a "wall keeping out."

Johan writes:

I would enjoy a discussion on currently available alternate ways to demonstrate high productivity.

Roger Sweeny writes:

One model for decreasing the demand for education as a signalling device is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. An employer may feel that the best person for a job would be a light-skinned married Protestant white male. But he is legally prohibited from using any of those criteria to determine who to hire. Congress could add education to those prohibited classifications.

Of course, that would leave potential employers scrambling to find something else they can use.

Charles Peters was the long-time editor of the Washington Monthly. He didn't like college as a signalling device, but he also didn't like "use a number 2 pencil to fill in the bubble" tests, either. During the late 60s and early 70s, he published a number of articles about developing other tests for how well an employee would do on the job. He hoped he could be part of a movement which would eventually create an industry.

Ironically, his hopes were destroyed by the Supreme Court's decision in Griggs v. Duke Power (March 8, 1971), a case interpreting the Civil Rights Act.

Joe Cushing writes:


The best test is to hire more people than you need as temps and only put people on permanently if they do well. I'm a temp and out of 30 of us, 3 are gone after a month. It's an expensive test though.

infopractical writes:

"There's a massive selection bias because the kind of people who hate school rarely publicize their complaints."

Or is it that they're dismissed and ignored?

I look forward to reading this book -- this chapter in particular.

Mike Hinton writes:

I am about to start a family and I recently finished "Selfish Reasons." It's just what I needed. I'm totally fine with the signaling theory of education, it makes sense, except I'm going to be receiving my PhD in physics in the next few months and rather not be convinced the last 6-10 years of my life were not well spent.

Can you help me out here?

Roger Sweeny writes:

One reason that education is such an important signal today is that so many of the other signals are now illegal. Yahoo recently put up an article, "9 Common Interview Questions That Are Actually Illegal, By Wall Street," Thu, Mar 22, 2012 4:17 PM EDT.

"If you look at the broad picture, the [interview] questions you're asked have to be job-related and not about who you are as a person," Lori Adelson, a labor and employment attorney and partner with law firm Arnstein & Lehr, told us.

As if, "Where did you go to college?" is any more specifically job-related than, "What is your IQ?"

If I believed in "the elites control the world" sociology, I would say that "the education business" had used its influence with government to render substitutes for its product illegal.

I suspect that most academics support making all these questions illegal but strongly oppose making "What is your educational background?" illegal.

Roger Sweeny writes:

Oops. Left out the url for the Yahoo article, "9 Common Interview Questions That Are Actually Illegal."

jseliger writes:

There's a massive selection bias because the kind of people who hate school rarely publicize their complaints

I'm late to this party, but I wonder if part of the issue is that people who hate school don't always have the writing toolkit and desire to "publicize their complaints." School selects for people with the desire and ability to write; so those who don't are by definition left with less of a voice.

School, in that sense, inculcates the very values that will enable highly literate people to then defend school.

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