Bryan Caplan  

Practical Guidance for Prudent Students

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The Case Against Education's chapter on the selfish return to education runs over sixty pages.  Since I suspect that even eager readers may skim all the tables, I end with practical advice in plain English.  Note: Nothing in this section hinges on signaling, because signaling reduces education's social return but not its selfish (or "private") return.


Practical Guidance for Prudent Students

Teachers hate when students groan, "Can't you just tell us the answer?"  For academics, a short, sweet solution is indecent unless clothed in a thorough explanation.  For educational decisions, however, the stakes are so high that I'm willing to be indecent. 

But first, a caveat.  Since my calculations include non-monetary values, my advice is stronger than it sounds.  If I opine, "Type X students shouldn't go to college," I'm not saying that "Type X students shouldn't go to college unless they really like school."  I'm saying "Type X students shouldn't go to college even if they do really like school."  Buying a beach house on the verge of collapse is ill-advised, even if you love the ocean and can't afford better. 

Broad-stroke advice rubs many people the wrong way.  The world is full of chance, and every individual is unique.  Still, using these banal facts to avoid giving definite counsel is a cop-out.  Although no strategy is foolproof, and every generalization has exceptions,  some educational strategies really are better than others.  Here they are.

Go to high school unless you're a terrible student.  High school is a good deal for students of almost every description.  On the first day of high school, Excellent, Good, Fair, and even Poor Students can count on a Degree Return of at least 5%.  Since Poor Students by definition fit the profile of the typical dropout, the decision to drop out is typically a mistake.  The key insight: Uncredentialed, inexperienced, full-time workers earn low salaries, so teens can afford to bet on their own academic success even if they usually fail.

The high school payoff remains healthy even in bleak scenarios.  While school is less fruitful for confirmed bachelors, Poor Students, and people who hate sitting in class, a male Poor Student who rules out marriage and hates school has a Degree Return of 4%.  Should anyone skip high school in favor of a low-skilled job?  Yes.  Almost a quarter of us are worse than Poor Students.  If you're in the bottom 10-15% of the academic pecking order, your graduation odds are so slim that you should quit school and start work.  And whatever you do, don't bother with a GED.  It may sound like a good middle way, but in practice, its main function is to tell employers, "I have the brains but not the grit to finish high school."

Go to college only if you're a strong student or special case.  College is a a good deal for Excellent and Good Students who follow two simple rules.  First, pick a "real" major.  STEM is obviously "real"; so are economics, business, and even political science.  Second, go to a respected public school.  It probably won't charge list price, and even if it does, you usually get your money's worth.  If you stray far from these rules, you're likely to get burned.  Even Excellent Students should think twice before paying list price for private school or pursuing a fine arts degree.  Does Gothic architecture or a career in the arts really mean the world to you? 

For weaker students, college is normally a bad deal.  If you're a Fair Student, go only if you're a special case.  Will you major in something like engineering?  Did an elite school miraculously offer you a cushy scholarship?  Are you a women who firmly plans to marry?  Then despite your spotty academic record, college may be for you.  Otherwise, skip college and get a job.  Poor Students, finally, should not go to college, period.  Filling their heads with hope because a Nobelist once got a bad grade is irresponsible.  Statistically speaking, the "easy" majors Poor Students have a prayer of surviving aren't worth the seven odd years they need to finish. 

Don't get a master degree unless the stars align.  On the day they start a master's degree, even Excellent Students can expect a lousy Degree Return of 2.6%.  You should enroll, then, only if you have a great reason - or several good reasons - to believe you'll beat the odds.  

For starters, your academic ability needs to be better than Excellent.  Failure in graduate programs is so prevalent that only the top 5-10% of the population can confidently expect to cross the finish line.  Field also matters enormously.  While data on graduate earnings by subject are scarce, there can be little doubt that engineering, computer science, and economics have far higher returns than fine arts, education, and anthropology.  The latter degrees only make sense if compared to your fellow masters students, you're a gushing fan of your subject.   For women, finally, marital plans are also crucial.  As long as she's an Excellent Student, the master's is very good deal for the woman who marries, but a lousy deal for the woman who stays single. 


My counsel rubs many the wrong way.  Some dismiss it as "elitist," "philistine," or "sexist."  The correct label is candid.  It's not my fault the rewards of education hinge on graduation.  It's not my fault graduation hinges on past academic performance.  It's not my fault fine arts degrees pay so poorly.  It's not my fault married women profit far more from education than single women.  I am only a messenger.  My job is to honestly report the facts, especially unwelcome facts of great practical importance.

The most common visceral reaction to my advice, however, is to accuse me of hypocrisy.  "Sure, he advises other people's kids to think twice before they go to college.  But he'd never say that to his own kids."  They don't know me.  I advise my kids the same way I advise anyone else: Tailoring my message to the student.  I learn their academic track record, motivation, intended field of study, gender, marital plans, and so on.  Then I tell them how various educational paths typically pan out for people who fit their profile.  This is no reason to shoot the messenger - or the messenger's children.  My first two sons are outstanding students interested in economics, so of course I'll urge college.  My younger two have yet to start school, so the jury is still out.  If either turns out to be a C student, I will gently but emphatically advise them to find a job right after high school. 

Finally, none of my recommendations assumes that human beings base their educational decisions on careful calculations of the return to education.  Quite the opposite.  If human beings based their educational decisions on careful calculations of the return to education, they wouldn't need my advice because they'd already be following it!  My assumption, rather, is that our educational decisions are deeply corrupted by ignorance, inexperience, conformity, and pride.  My goal is save readers time, money, and grief by rooting out - or at least curbing - this pervasive corruption.

Update: Implied urban legend about Einstein's academic record fixed.  Thanks!


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COMMENTS (31 to date)
Nathan writes:

What about the role of uncertainty?

"If you're in the bottom 10-15% of the academic pecking order, your graduation odds are so slim that you should quit school and start work."

How many people "know" that's the category they're in, particularly when starting high school. Seems like there is some additional option value to going to school, because there's some probability you turn out to be a (even slightly) better student than you thought (as you mature, etc), which would make it worth it and why I'd be hesitant to recommend any kid not go to high school, even accepting this data on returns to education by student type.

J Lonsdale writes:

It's funny how people are being told "STEM is safe" when the "S" in STEM is usually not a good idea unless the student is planning on even more school after undergrad.

Charlie writes:

Do you provide objective metrics for readers to gauge their status? The problem is that most students compare themselves to their peers. Many fair or poor students at my top public high school would be good to excellent relative to the entire student population.

An SAT score of 1000 would be very poor at my high school, but would put someone in the 50% of SAT takers and higher relative to the general student population.

Dave-o writes:
My goal is save readers...

You may want to fix that part of your book...

MikeP writes:

Two points...

1. Doctorate? I thought your message on a master [sic] degree would be that you shouldn't stop with it. But then you don't mention doctorates at all. Who should go for those?

2. You do not allow for the consumer value of education. There are those who are surprised and excited to find out that they get paid -- not much, but enough to live on -- to go to grad school. These folks may take seven years to get a Ph.D. and enjoy the career avoidance in the wonderfully sheltered setting of a university campus the whole time.

Then again, maybe #2 is the answer to #1!

Carl writes:

What about law school, med school, MBAs, and PhDs?

How does "always pick STEM" interact with verbal/math splits and STEM's higher attrition rates?

I hope there are tables to map observable characteristics to student category.

Emily writes:

There are various types of post-secondary education that aren't four-year college. For instance, high school graduates (or GED-holders, or sometimes high school dropouts) can do vocational education that may result in certificates or an associate's degree. Is finding a job after high school really the best option for C-students, or do you just mean "don't go to four-year college"?

Jeff writes:

What about vocational training? I see stuff in the media now and then about supposed shortages of skilled tradesmen: welders, machinists, electricians, etc. What do the returns look like for something like that, and who should pursue training and a career in those kinds of fields? Which one's offer the best returns?

roystgnr writes:

When you estimate lifetime returns to education, are you extrapolating current trends?

If real hourly wages for high school drop outs have been dropping for decades, while real hourly wages for college graduates have been rising, then calculations of the return on college and high school graduation made based on the numbers when I was a child would have underestimated the return I see today. The same underestimation effect is likely true for predictions of future returns based on today's numbers.

RPLong writes:

In Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, Caplan argues that outcomes are largely hereditary. Twins raised in very different situations end up in similar socio-economic positions in the long run. Armed with data from twin and adoption studies, Caplan makes a compelling case for nature over nurture.

There seems to be significant tension between that argument and the one articulated in this post, which seems to argue that individual outcomes vary significantly and importantly based on the educational decisions we make.

If Caplan were to give educational advice that was consistent with his parenting advice, it seems to me he would argue that kids should follow whatever educational path their biological parents took, unless they happen to be outliers.

So why the difference?

Scott Scheule writes:

What bad grade did Einstein get?

http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1936731_1936743_1936758,00.html

handle writes:

"My counsel rubs many the wrong way. Some dismiss it as "elitist," "philistine," or "sexist." The correct label is candid. It's not my fault the rewards of education hinge on graduation. It's not my fault graduation hinges on past academic performance. It's not my fault fine arts degrees pay so poorly. It's not my fault married women profit far more from education than single women. I am only a messenger. My job is to honestly report the facts, especially unwelcome facts of great practical importance."

Bravo! One of the best things you've written.

Still, people will respond, "But look, there's an entire profession of thousands of people who are already doing this - high school guidance counselors - and obviously they almost all disagree with you and are providing the opposite advice, with plenty of back up from politicians and departments of education. Are all these people spouting nonsense? Are they party to some conspiracy? Are they all just pretending to 'know' things that really aren't true and which have no good evidence to back then up? Are you really accusing entire fields of what amounts to professional malpractice and fraudulent misrepresentation?"

Yancey Ward writes:

"If you're in the bottom 10-15% of the academic pecking order, your graduation odds are so slim that you should quit school and start work."

How many people "know" that's the category they're in, particularly when starting high school.

It has been 34 years since I was in it, but when I was in high school, that would describe the students who couldn't read. I think they would know who they are even better than I did.

Yancey Ward writes:

Sorry, that was intended to be double blockquoted, and the last was my reply to Nathan.

JA writes:

@Nathan & @Ward I think the uncertainty point is interesting, very few schools tell students their ranking. Also, as Caplan I am sure is aware, that as children age they more accurately reflect their genetic ability.

Although I generally agree with Caplan's advice, I would more heavily weight the evidence to later in life. I have two friends who were below average (at good schools) students at least until they were 15, but both went on to get PhD's in STEM fields. What I am trying to stay in short, is the advice given to a 15 year old might not be the same as you'd give to the same student at 20.

Mark S writes:

I'm with Charlie, do you have any objective measures? Doesn't almost everyone think they are in the Excellent/Good camp? Maybe college is usually a bad deal for those who scored below 1200 (in 1600 scale) on SAT?

There's a risk of the media taking the number out of context and writing articles with titles like "Econ Prof Says You Shouldn't Go to College If Your SAT Score is Below 1200" and you may have to defend yourself in interviews ("What I actually wrote was..."), but some kind of numbers people can actually use (it's Practical Guidance after all) will definitely help.

jsalvatier writes:

Is Poor, Fair, Good relative to your own school or globally? The way you've written your advice, I think lots of people will have skewed impressions about their own ranking. Someone in the bottom half of a school with lots of talented students will think they're Fair or Poor, even though they might be Good and vice versa.

J Lonsdale writes:

Also - "Don't get a master degree unless the stars align." - are you accounting for how phd programs pay for people to get a master degree in your calculation on the degree's return?

The optimal choice may be to get a master's degree (We are assuming this is in a economical major) while pretending to be in a phd program, but "drop out" right after getting the master's degree. Maybe the phrase "stars align" was the politically correct way of implying this since a professor shouldn't be encouraging students to apply to phd programs they plan on dropping out of.

One other thing to point out - there are ways to turn non-STEM/econ/business interests into something that will still be economical. For example, the person who loves graphic design might think about how they can become a user experience designer.

Peter H writes:

I question the advice for "worse than poor" students to drop out of high school and work. In most states, lawfully working while under 18 requires being actively enrolled in school. The margin is not then between high school and work, but between high school and the sort of off the books work an exceptionally unintelligent and/or impulsive and/or uncooperative teenager. Worse than poor to me implies a lack of the basic social skills that would let you show up and shut up enough to get pushed through an underperforming public high school.

Other than the riskiest bits of drug dealing, I can't think of any work that would be open to such a teenager. And that path does not lead to low wage drudgery, it leads to a lifetime in and out of prison.

James writes:

"First, pick a "real" major. STEM is obviously "real"; so are economics, business, and even political science."

What defines a real degree? I'm not trying to be pedantic here, I studied philosophy and am wondering if there was a point to doing so.

Assuming the signalling model is true, a "real" degree just means one that employers are likely to respect, right?

LD Bottorff writes:

Here is a discouraging thought. A good many education majors are at not that good at education. Yet, in order to continue to get pay raises, they must get a Masters degree. What does that imply about the rigor of a Masters degree in Education?
Furthermore, many people may actually be good students if they could get better teachers. As a result of poor math teaching in our schools, private businesses now offer supplemental math learning. Since mathematics is so important to STEM, I would advise a student who struggles with math to try one of alternate math learning centers before deciding not to go to college. Of course this has to be done early: junior year in high school is a little late.

blink writes:

Two questions:

1. What is your advice for athletes? Is college worthwhile with a scholarship but low odds of eventually graduating?

2. What about social status? The diploma or degree is also a ticket into social circles quite apart from the financial benefit. How does this weigh in the calculation? By the same token, having a child complete college or beyond often gives status and utility to the parents. To what extent should this be considered?

caryatis writes:

To add to the cascade of questions for Bryan, why assume that women know at the age of 18-20 whether they will marry? I suppose you could judge by your peers and relatives, but still, unless she's engaged a woman can't "firmly plan" to marry.

Mark V Anderson writes:

I think we need some evidence here. Maybe it is in your book, but here you aren't convincing without evidence.

It has been my impression that is a good strategy for ANY high school graduate to get some post high school education, because otherwise looking for work will be a struggle one's entire life, as employers always have too many applicants that are just high school graduates. As others have said, you seem to have neglected the vocational programs, which are geared to the bottom half of the academic pool. I would love to see evidence that such training is almost always a waste of time, because I have been urging my son for years to take such training. If I'm wrong, I will stop nagging him.

Tracy W writes:

@handle:

Still, people will respond, "But look, there's an entire profession of thousands of people who are already doing this - high school guidance counselors - and obviously they almost all disagree with you and are providing the opposite advice, with plenty of back up from politicians and departments of education. Are all these people spouting nonsense?

Well, anyone who has actually had advice from a high school guidance counsellor knows the answer to that one.

And it's not surprising - what incentive does the guidance counsellor have to get their advice right? What feedback do they have, even?

Ismail O. writes:

How about the non-material side of education? So far, you have only included in your analysis the potential returns on investment on education measured by potential earnings. Is that what education is all about? May be, the answer is yes. Or may be the answer is a continuum between materialistic and non-materialistic rewards. The difficulty for individuals is indeed to figure out where they stand on that. May be that is too much to ask.

BT writes:

"First, pick a "real" major. STEM is obviously "real"; so are economics, business, and even political science."

I believe that Accounting should be added to this list while Biology and Chemistry subtracted. I am a Chem major with a Biology PhD and wish I had become an accountant. Better pay and job security.

AS writes:

what about the non monetary returns to education?

Skeptical writes:

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david c writes:

Why did you skip technical, associate's, and doctoral degrees?

Flocccina writes:

Also it is almost always better to take the easier professor or teacher if you can. Yes you might learn more from the more challenging professor or teacher but grades matter. The differences between the easiest and professor or teacher can be huge. I had a friend who took a math class with wacko hard teach for a challenge and got his only math B (all the rest were A's).

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