What Is a College Degree Worth?

Bryan Caplan

Bryan Caplan doesn’t just think outside the box when it comes to higher education. He stomps on the box and mashes it into the ground.

How much of what college students learn in class do they retain later in life?

Remarkably little, says Bryan Caplan, an economics professor at George Mason University. And thereupon lies a tale with massive implications for higher education policy in Virginia and nationally.

Students are subject to “fade out,” the diminishing memory of facts, figures, theories, and languages learned in the classroom that receive no reinforcement in life after school. The fact is, the vast majority of what students learn — whether history, English lit, psychology, calculus, French, or astronomy — is irrelevant to their workplace preoccupations as employees, and it is soon forgotten.

In other words, argues Caplan in his book, “The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time,” from a societal perspective the vast majority of college-level schooling represents squandered time and money.

The primary value of earning a college degree is to send a signal to the employment marketplace that the bearer of a sheepskin is intelligent enough, diligent enough, and conformist enough to undergo the multi-year trial of completing the requirements. “For the individual, higher ed helps get you a job and make more money,” said Caplan in an interview with Bacon’s Rebellion. “But for society, the benefits are very overstated.”

Some colleges and universities teach advanced vocational skills such as engineering or law. Students in those fields do learn skills they will apply in their jobs, but Caplan argues that most disciplines teach little that’s relevant in the world outside the ivory tower. A degree in history, for instance, trains the student to become a historian but not much of anything else. By his spitball estimate, 80% of the career-preparation value of a college education comes from signalling, only 20% from content they master.

Reflecting upon my personal experience, I would have to acknowledge that I have forgotten the vast majority of what I learned while earning B.A. and M.A. degrees in history. I recall only the barest of details from my courses in the history of China, Japan, Latin America, the West Indies, Africa, and European overseas expansion. Forty-plus years later, I know more about these topics than the average Joe, but what I’ve forgotten could fill an encyclopedia. Why? Because in my journalism career in Virginia, I never called upon that knowledge and it faded from memory. By contrast, even though I took only a single college course in American government, I retain a storehouse of knowledge about state and local government in Virginia because I call upon it constantly.

I depart from Caplan in my belief that I did learn something of enduring value at the University of Virginia — how to think rigorously and analytically. But then, I must concede, that skill came mainly from two honors courses in historical methodology co-taught by two extraordinary professors and from the experience of writing a senior thesis, not the vast majority of my courses. Most UVa history majors did not take the honors courses and never benefited from the exceptional give-and-take of that particular program.

Caplan would concede that, yes, college students do learn something of enduring value that benefits them later in life, just not much. If the goal is preparing people for the workforce, as so much of the emphasis is today, most Virginians could learn a lot more during four years on the job than they could in four years of college.

“In the real world, most of what you learn is on the job,” Caplan says. “People get good by doing. … Nobody gets good at anything by taking critical thinking classes. They get good by doing.”

Why, then, do millions of Americans collectively spend tens of billions of dollars to attend college? The main reason, Caplan says, is to get a good job. Higher-ed institutions are adept at sorting applicants by intelligence by using such measures as SAT scores and class rankings. But if that were the only value colleges supplied, businesses would select employees on the basis of IQ tests. The ability to complete a four-year program of 40 or so courses also tells employers about a student’s diligence, self-discipline and willingness to conform to institutional demands. Students who fail to complete a college degree — whether because they are not smart enough, are too lazy, or reject institutional norms — are significantly less likely to make good employees.

Caplan makes a prediction fraught with significance for public policy. The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) has set a goal of making Virginia the “best educated state” in the country by 2030, which means putting the public education system on a trajectory to produce thousands of degrees more than it would have on its previous path. If the supply of Virginians with a college degree exceeds the demand, the workforce won’t become any more productive Caplan suggests. But employers will separate the wheat from the chaff by increasing the educational criteria they require — credential inflation — thus requiring Virginians to devote even more time and expense to obtaining those credentials.

Caplan has another concern about setting arbitrary goals for the number of degrees and workforce credentials. Too many students are ill prepared for higher education as it is. American colleges are already full of students who aren’t capable of college-level work. Many of them are taking remedial classes, re-learning what they should have learned in high school. The fact that Americans have more educational credentials than ever says nothing about the quality of education they are receiving.

“If you could actually get schools to turn out people who can read or write, that would be an accomplishment,” Caplan says. “There are plenty of college graduates whom you’d be shocked by how poor their literacy or numeracy is.”

I asked Caplan if he saw any value in higher education as a consumer good — not just earning a degree but enjoying the residential campus experience, including everything from football games and dormitory bull sessions to ample opportunities to indulge in alcohol, drugs and sex. Instead of giving their kid money to backpack around Europe for a year, are parents paying their kids to enjoy four years of maximum freedom and minimum responsibility before embarking upon a lifetime of toil?

Some parents may be motivated by nostalgia for their own college experience, Caplan conceded, but he doesn’t think it’s an important factor in why they insist their kids get a degree. Most people attend college to advance their prospects in the job market. “Suppose college grads didn’t earn anything extra, how many people would still go? … College would be just for rich kids.”

Caplan sees considerable value in on-the-job training such as internships and apprenticeships — programs in which employees gain knowledge that they apply directly to work. I asked if he subscribed to the idea of “just in time learning” —  taking courses and mastering skills as they are needed. 

“From the point of view of taxpayers, that makes a lot more sense,” he says. Even then, he’s guarded about the value of acquiring knowledge by taking college courses. Say an aspiring manager wants to learn project management. How can he or she learn the discipline most effectively — by attending lectures and doing homework, or by shadowing someone on the job? Still, taking courses as needed is less wasteful than sending someone to college for four years and “consuming this giant buffet of stuff they’ll never need again.”

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7 responses to “What Is a College Degree Worth?

  1. No question, students get out a college degree what they put into it. GIGO. It is possible to coast through, take a lot of interesting classes largely irrelevant to the real world, and have it mostly fade away. Or do your research and take a bunch of easy stuff and settle for Cs. There is more direct career value in professional and science programs (now the trendy STEM-H).

    But it sure wasn’t possible to get through W&M back in the day without being able to fill a blue book with something other than regurgitated drivel, and the skills I gained in taking widely diverse courses had immense value when I worked as a reporter. Likewise when I was writing policy papers, speeches or even lobbying materials (or blatherings for a blog.) And even though my religious studies proved to be seed cast on barren ground, the material stays with me. I have no regrets about choosing the liberal arts path.

    Whether it is worth the current cost for the current crop of students is an economic discussion, but there is intrinsic value in education all by itself and it is hard to monetize an intangible. His points about the weak preparation hampering many enrolled students are, of course, dead on – but the schools have too much economic incentive to keep them on the rolls and paying.

  2. I very much disagree with Mr. Caplan. A “liberal education” is an education in a way of thinking much more than a set of facts. Four years in a residential college is an education in living apart from parental strictures and learning to think for oneself, with input from a new set of mentors and peers. Why do so many Asians, whose own higher educational opportunity is rote memorization and respect for authority, see the value in exposing their children to American independent and critical thinking that they would send them here?

    We have discussed here the reasons why not every child will benefit from such a college experience, or should spend what it takes to obtain it. There’s no question in my mind that non-residential community college and narrower technical training ought to be available at low or zero cost as a continuation of the high school educational experience for those who cannot afford the luxury of maturing on a University campus. But grade the societal value of all higher education on the trade-school scale? No, our best colleges are a national treasure. The room for improvement in how they are run is not an indictment of what they accomplish.

  3. I disagree also with Mr. Caplan on the points made by Acbar and this:

    The problem we have was touched on by Acbar. Every Tom, Dick and Harry these days sees fit to run down our institutions … when our institutions never were and never are perfect but they are significant in ability to add value to many if not all people.

    Once again, it’s a half glass full , half glass empty perspective.

    Some folks are dedicated to finding all the things wrong and condemnation… others see good and won’t make it the enemy of perfect. If things are broke, fix them but non-stop bellyaching is not constructive.

  4. BEN FRANKLIN BIO per Wikipidia –

    Benjamin Franklin (January 17, 1706 – April 17, 1790) was an American polymath and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. He was a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, freemason, postmaster, scientist, inventor, humorist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. As a scientist, he was a major figure in the American Enlightenment and the history of physics for his discoveries and theories regarding electricity. As an inventor, he is known for the lightning rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove, among other inventions. He founded many civic organizations, including Philadelphia’s fire department and the University of Pennsylvania.

    BEN FRANKLIN’S EDUCATION per Wikipedia-

    Ben’s father, Josiah Franklin, was a tallow chandler, a soap-maker and a candle-maker born in England in 1657. Ben’s mother, Abiah Folger, was born in Nantucket, Massachusetts to Peter Folger, a miller and schoolteacher, and Mary Morrell Folger, a former indentured servant. Josiah had 17 children by two wives.

    BEN’S EDUCATION:

    Josiah wanted Ben to attend school with the clergy, but only had enough money to send him to school for two years. He attended Boston Latin School but did not graduate; he continued his education through voracious reading. His schooling ended when he was ten. At 12 he became an apprentice to his brother James, a printer, who taught Ben the printing trade.

    JOHN MARSHALL BIO per Wikipedia –

    John Marshall (September 24, 1755 – July 6, 1835) was an American politician and the fourth Chief Justice of the United States (1801–1835). His court opinions helped lay the basis for United States constitutional law and establish the US Supreme Court as coequal branch of US government along with the legislative and executive branches. Previously, Marshall was leader of Federalist Party in Virginia, served in US House of Representatives from 1799 to 1800, was Secretary of State under President John Adams from 1800 to 1801, and was last chief justices born in Colonial America.

    The longest-serving Chief Justice and the fourth longest-serving justice in U.S. Supreme Court history, Marshall dominated the Court for over three decades (34 years) and played major role in developing the American legal system. He reinforced the principle that federal courts are obligated to exercise judicial review by overturning purported laws if they violate the constitution. Thus, he cemented the American judiciary as an independent and influential branch of government. He also rendered court decisions establishing the balance of power between the federal government and the states during the early years of the republic. And repeatedly confirmed the supremacy of federal law over state law and supported an expansive reading of the enumerated powers.

    Thus Marshall built up the third branch of the federal government and augmented federal power in the name of the Constitution and the rule of law. Along with Daniel Webster, he was the leading Federalist of the day, pursuing Federalist Party approaches to build a stronger federal government over the opposition of the Jeffersonian Republicans, who wanted stronger state governments.

    JOHN MARSHALL’S EDUCATION, per recent biography.

    Marshall was born in a two room cabin (400 sq. ft) in Fauquier County where he lived with 15 siblings. He had few neighbors. The closest towns, Warrenton and Winchester were a full day ride away (20 miles.) His father taught him to read and write. His mother encouraged both. At 14, he took one year of grammar school, his only year of formal learning, save for 6 weeks at William and Mary, after which he abruptly quit formal schooling.

  5. As American colleges and universities continue to escalate tuition and related costs faster than the rate of inflation or the growth of median wages the question of what a college degree is worth will continue to come up. At some point in this escalation of higher educational costs the value of various degrees versus the cost of attaining those degrees will get more and more scrutiny.

    There is a lot of research regarding the value of various degrees. Here is a pretty balanced article on what degrees employers value the most and the least:

    https://www.topuniversities.com/student-info/careers-advice/which-degrees-do-employers-value-most

    The simple truth is that, on average, English, Communications, History and other liberal arts majors do not make as much money over their working lives as Computer Science, Accounting, Engineering and other STEM degree holders.

    Mismanagement of college and university costs is putting a squeeze on students. Students who are responsible for all or a lot of their higher education costs have a tough question to answer – will I be able to pay off the loans I am accumulating if I major in Anthropology? This issue has public policy issues as well. Should the government guarantee student loans for students majoring in areas where they will be unlikely to obtain employment that will let them repay those loans?

    I also wonder whether the liberal arts courses of today are taught the same way as they were in the past. Do today’s universities really demand the kinds of rigorous thinking that was required 30 or 40 years ago? Or, do the universities use a combination of computer based training, grad student led classes and huge survey courses to let students studying liberal arts graduate without the same critical thinking skills they had in the past? The article I provided as a link seems to support this idea. Otherwise, why do employers have such an interest in electrical engineers and such disdain for history majors?

    • “The simple truth is that, on average, English and History and Communications and other liberal arts majors do not make as much money over their working lives as Computer Science, Accounting, Engineering and other STEM degree holders.”

      That statement is true. The reason it is true is that “on average, English, Communications, History and other liberal arts majors” have false degrees. Typically, the holders of those degrees known next to nothing about their majors.

      Meanwhile, other students cannot fake their STEM degrees.

      STEM degrees are real. They represent real achievement and earned competence in their field. Thus more than half of those students who declare for STEM majors soon drop out of STEM majors. They are unwilling or unable to do the real work necessary to earn a STEM degree. Hence they shift over to the liberal arts. In most all undergraduate schools, they can easily get a fake liberal arts degree wherein they get very good grades for very little effort, and no real learning.

      This is extremely important to consider every time one thinks or writes about higher education. This underlying corruption undermines most every claim made by those responsible for, or pushing, American higher ed. The whole system is corrupt from top to bottom. People need understand this.

      HOWEVER, those students with real Liberal Arts degrees, on average earn far higher salaries over their careers than STEM graduates from the best STEM schools, MIT, for example. There are far fewer of these high achievement liberal arts students than there would be absent rampant corruption.

  6. I agree generally with the thrust of Professor Caplan’s conclusions, with some caveats.

    Note in particular, Professor Caplan’s “concern concern about setting arbitrary goals for the number of degrees and workforce credentials. Too many students are ill prepared for higher education as it is. American colleges are already full of students who aren’t capable of college-level work. Many of them are taking remedial classes, re-learning what they should have learned in high school. The fact that Americans have more educational credentials than ever says nothing about the quality of education they are receiving. ‘If you could actually get schools to turn out people who can read or write, that would be an accomplishment,” Caplan says. “There are plenty of college graduates whom you’d be shocked by how poor their literacy or numeracy is.’”

    This is extremely important. Most American kids in college today learn next to nothing because they do not possess the skills and/or the talents necessary to earn a legitimate college Baccalaureate degree. Indeed, far too many of today’s college students lack a legitimate high school degree, nor do many of them have the talents and skills needed to acquire a legitimate high school degree. This is why some 50% of all college students fail to get a degree after six years, even with rampant grade inflation.

    But this is only half the fraud imposed on America’s college students. Far too many of those students who DO GRADUATE in six or more years receive a BOGUS Baccalaureate degree. The proof of this fraud is beyond dispute. Many such “college graduates” are functionally illiterate. They never had any reasonable chance of earning a legitimate college Baccalaureate degree. Nor, even if they could have earned such a degree in college, they were never required to work hard enough or taught enough substance in college to gain the skills, habits and learning needed or necessary for such a degree.

    Hence professor Caplan can honestly say: “If you could actually get schools to turn out people who can read or write, that would be an accomplishment. There are plenty of college graduates whom you’d be shocked by how poor their literacy or numeracy is.”

    This is why “The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia’ (SCHEV)’s goal of making Virginia the “best educated state” in the country by 2030, by “PRODUCING” thousands of MORE degrees than it would have on its previous path” is a policy that is dishonest, fraudulent and immoral. SCHEV in practical affect is turning Virginia’s system of higher education in a business that swindles the great majority of its students.

    In fact, only a very small percentage of students in Virginia colleges today are getting anything close to the education they deserve and pay for.

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