Bryan Caplan  

An Awkward College Question

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Suppose higher education had zero effect on students' careers or income.  How many people would still choose to go?


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COMMENTS (28 to date)
Pat writes:

Don't we all agree that part of the reason that people go to college is to increase their income?

Seems to me like the answer to your question depends on the price.

Stewart Dompe writes:

It depends on the price of admission and the opportunity cost of my time.

Dating apps have replaced a large social coordinating function of college. During my orientation I actually had an administrator stand on stage and admonish the crowd that we were there to study and not find spouses. I suppose if Colleges were so narrow in focus that joining one served as an effective lifestyle or value signal for future partners it might also be worth it.

Joseph E Munson writes:

Hard to say, I think maybe people who currently go to grad school (grad school that isn't law school/medical school/teaching prep masters) after college might be a decent proxy. It depends on the major but they seem to currently forgo money in order to go grad school right now, so clearly they are not going for money.

Also, if costs fell there would probably be a lot of people who took 1 or 2 classes in stuff they are interested in but didn't go for the full degree.

Bill writes:

We might get an approximation by adding up the number of students who major in fields like "Gender Studies," Nineteenth Century French Poetry, etc.

Vincent writes:

Pr Caplan, did you investigate fake diploma cases?
It would be interesting to know if they get caught because of poor performance or routine check. And how far some manage to go depending on the fiels.

Thomas writes:

A lot. There are things about college that many people enjoy and would be willing to pay for. One of those things is acquiring new knowledge, for its own sake. Yes, it's possible to acquire new knowledge on one's own, but college classes "package" the experience in a way that (for most people) is likely to prove more effective than a do-it-yourself approach. There are also the atmospherics: ivy-covered halls, late-night bull sessions, (temporary) freedom from making a living, etc. Admittedly, college enrollments would decline if college was shown (and widely known) not to bestow financial benefits. But it would still be a valuable consumption good for many.

Philo writes:

It is inconceivable that higher education should have no effect on the future careers of would-be scholars and scientists.

JK Brown writes:

An interesting question if you consider the origins of "higher education" among the monasteries, which were themselves holding pens for excess noble offspring removed them from succession politics. Even as many of these "leisure" aristocrats did advance natural science, when their studies began they were by definition economically useless.

The liberal arts as pointed out by Mises, are hobbies. Beyond the higher education signaling to employers, to study the liberal arts is to affect the signal of aristocratic leisure. Granted vocational skills developed during studies, such as writing or research ability, are developed in the studies of the economically-useless topics.

I feel this observation from 1890 remains true

For example : The question being propounded, What is the value of the combined services to man of Mr. Gladstone and Mr. Disraeli, as compared with those of Sir Henry Bessemer? Ninety-nine out of a hundred men of sound judgment would doubtless say, " The value of the services of the two statesmen is quite unimportant, while the value of the services of Mr. Bessemer is enormous, incalculable." But how many of these ninety-nine men of sound judgment could resist the fascination of the applause accorded to the statesmen ? How many of them would have the moral courage to educate their sons for the career of Mr. Bessemer instead of for the career of Mr. Disraeli or of Mr. Gladstone?* Not many in the present state of public sentiment. It will be a great day for man, the day that ushers in the dawn of more sober views of life, the day that inaugurates the era of the mastership of things in the place of the mastership of words.

—Charles H. Ham, Mind and Hand: manual training, the chief factor in education (1900)

Phil writes:

Suppose it were illegal to go to college until age 40 (with exceptions, if you want, for medicine, law, engineering, and so forth).

How many would still choose to go?

Would there still be a large positive effect on income?

I would guess: few, no.

Liam writes:

You said in your interview with Tucker Carlson that about 5% of people should go to college. I think that's a good estimate for this hypothetical.

Seth writes:

How many people choose to take community education courses? That's a fair proxy. It's not zero, but it's not many.

Derek writes:

Should we assume that everyone would be aware that higher education had no effect? If so, then I suspect few would actually go. However, so long as higher earnings can at least serve as a pretext for higher education, I think most would continue to attend.

JayT writes:

I don't think that people getting degrees in soft liberal arts are a good proxy for this question. When I was in college, everyone I knew going for a degree in something like liberal arts was going to school because their parents told them they had to go, and they just chose something easy/something they could actually accomplish. A bunch of them would start out trying to get a degree that would lead to high paychecks, but when they couldn't hack the course load they just took a step down to an easier degree.

Karl writes:

I think college would remain popular for the same reason that Shaw said marriage is popular: it combines a maximum of temptation with a maximum of opportunity. A college concentrates in one place a large number of age-appropriate potential mates for both men and women. Finding a suitable boy (or girl) is still a major reason why people attend college; indeed, it may be THE major reason. And colleges also tend to segregate by social class, with "elite" schools attracting "elite" students and less fancy places attracting less well-off students, etc. While colleges offer more diverse potential mates than local churches or synagogues, they still tend to match like with like, perpetuating pre-existing social stratification rather than upsetting it.

Plucky writes:

Probably a slim majority of the upper-middle/affluent class, say 10% or so. If the overall cost wasn't so outrageous (say, what public schools cost 15-20 years ago) then I'd guess more like 15-20% overall. Many (if not most) students go to college for reasons that are principally social rather than academic or career based. They're going to college to make lifelong friends, find a spouse, and to enjoy "the college experience"

Denver writes:

Are we assuming that a degree still has signaling value, just not in the context of employment (e.g. I can show my friends how smart and hard-working I am)?

If so, then I would guess a small, but non-zero fraction of the populace.

If not, then I doubt anyone would go, especially with the rise of the internet and alternative forms of education.

HB writes:

How about start with the market. People who hire list what skills they would like you to have. No need for a degree - just some type of certificate or equivalent. Whatever that might be.

Nathan Smith writes:

A lot, but many would just be there for the booze and parties and hot dates.

What I wonder is: how many would go to college, *and what kind of colleges,* if (a) it didn't affect income, (b) the booze and parties and hot dates and sports and other non-academic features were somehow eliminated, and (c) there were no public, taxpayer-financed subsidies?

I suspect that enrollment would fall by 70%, and 80% of the remaining enrollment would be at religious schools.

Luke J writes:

I'd go, because I have gone, simply to expand my knowledge into xyz. But, if the resources within a college/university were accessible outside the college/university, then the answer would be no.

For example CengageBrain offers really cool course material and practices, but is only available if you are actually enrolled in a college/university. Fortunately, I know a professor or two who have been willing to create a bogus course code for my personal use.

Steve writes:

I graduated from Columbia many years ago, and now I'm ready to retire. I'd love to go back, and take all the courses I never got a chance to take when I was an undergraduate. I wouldn't want to pay today's prices, however, and I don't think I could stomach the deconstruction and political correctness. But I will look into my local university and see what they have to offer people my age.

Dennis Waters writes:

Would depend on the effect on mate choice, then.

Dave writes:

People will still seek status. Some people will seek knowledge for it’s own sake. Well, maybe a few.

Fred Anderson writes:

Some in every field would go simply out of love of the subject matter. In the arts this is more obvious. But there are some who were meant to be scientists, and who have a felt need to pursue that. In college, I had a roommate studying to be an actuary; the guy was never more happy than when expounding on the stuff (and boring the rest of the room to tears).
So it would depend on cost to the student. If it were completely free -- nothing you had to sacrifice, including time or effort -- I suspect we almost all would enroll. It takes effort to imagine someone so mentally dead that nothing interests them.
At something like current costs -- including time, money, effort, opportunity costs, etc. -- I'd guess 5%.

Kashiff Thompson writes:

If all other factors remain the same (i.e., quality of faculty, access to information, etc.) that I consider before enrolling in a higher education institution, yes.

Also, in retrospect, attending college was the only means available to remove myself (and several of my peers) from an environment that was chaotic and violent.

So while under this circumstance (college has "zero effect on students' careers or income"), I would still attend. However, there are many other factors to consider.

David writes:

I"m assuming you mean future annual income and career. (If not, for the lifetime income to be equal you would have to earn more to offset time spent as a full-time student instead of night school).

There are also significant dating market benefits to getting a bachelors degree in a traditional four year environment, at least currently. It's a large pool of, er, applicants, that you can meet informally in person, rather than online. It's the happy medium of meeting in a workplace and meeting in high school. You have a lot of leisure time to know people in somewhat ordinary living situations (particularly if your campus has on-campus apartments with kitchens and subpar dining options like Mason did 10 years ago) without having to actually live with the other person. Of course, as the higher ed arms race continues and some graduate degree becomes the next step, this benefit seems like it could fade away.


I would still attend, especially since I had a scholarship for undergrad. I enjoyed the experience. Not sure what my "not worth it" price would be. However, I met my wife in undergrad, and we have two kids now, so I shouldn't regret it.

Mr. Lazy writes:

College or draft? Draft or college?

Back in the day, I picked college even tho' I didn't really want to.

At college, I met a lot more pretty girls who were smart than I would have in my preferred path.

And my parents told me it was college or out the door. College was easier than making rent every month.

Musca writes:

Assuming that "college" and "liberal education" are roughly synonymous, there's another factor not considered here.

Supposedly the point of a liberal education was to teach rulers how to rule well, based on history, philosophy, psychology (perhaps only by example), etc. The more familiar with human nature they become, the better able to rule themselves and develop the rules for others.

In a democracy, there is likely not 100% correlation for elected officials between quality of training to rule and actual quality of performance, not to mention between quality of training and ability to get elected. So it's difficult to say that better-educated rulers will see that quality reflected in "careers or income".

Excluding career and dating, are we effectively saying that an "education to rule" has zero market value, at least to the individuals shopping for it?

Floccina writes:

Here is an opposite thought that might be of interest. A friend of mine who went to college with me. He was not brilliant and so had to work very hard to get a degree in accounting, but he did it and maintained, I think about a 3.2 average. He hated college the whole time. He took nothing for interest but just what was required his electives were just easy grade classes.

If not for the chance of getting a good paying job he would not have gone.

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