Why you should care

Though a teacher himself, economist Bryan Caplan says American education must be radically downsized. 

As a kid, Brian Robertson spent hours programming his own video games. By age 13, he was skipping school to code; by 16, he had dropped out. He tried his hand at an engineering college but was frustrated by the lack of experiential learning and dropped out again. But today, Robertson isn’t stuck in a low-paying, dead-end job, pigeonholed by his lack of formal education. He’s the founder and CEO of management consultancy firm Holacracy and has no regrets. “I learned more in a few months of work experience than I typically see people get out of four years of college,” Robertson says.

Bryan Caplan believes this is how the American education system could — and should — work for millions of other students. According to the George Mason University professor, U.S. schools are deeply dysfunctional. They don’t teach useful job skills, and students do not retain most of what they learn in classes. On those points you will find much agreement in the academic world. But here’s the kicker: Caplan says if we introduce kids to job training by age 12, they could be ready to enter the job market as young as 15. Not only would this save taxpayers money and boost the economy, it would allow kids to pursue the path they find most fascinating, sparing them hours of boring, pointless lessons.

College is mostly about “signaling” — economist-speak for showing off.

Growing up as a self-described “socially awkward nerd,” in the Los Angeles suburbs, Caplan, 47, says he always did well in school but was never happy about it. “Even in kindergarten, I was disgruntled,” he says. After slogging through his ABCs under protest, he continued his critical stance. By junior high, he concluded that either the majority of his teachers were lousy, his lessons were poor, or both. He found validation as an undergrad at the University of California at Berkeley when he discovered academics such as Nobel Prize–winning economists Michael Spence and Ken Arrow had similar thoughts. After digging into the research, Caplan came to his provocative education theory in the simplest of ways. “I realized that the current system wastes an enormous amount of time and money,” he says. “And what’s better than wasting a lot of time and money?” He pauses. “Wasting less time and money!”

In his recent book The Case Against Education, Caplan writes of how the labor market offers only a marginal wage increase for people who have completed one, two or three years of college, yet those who make it to four years get a substantial salary bump. The reason for this, Caplan says, is that college is mostly about “signaling” — economist-speak for showing off. Employers want to hire candidates who went to Harvard or Yale because it signals their ability to jump through the hoops of the current system.

In researching his book, Caplan also looked at how the job market matches up with college course loads. For some of the most common courses, like foreign language and history, there are few applicable jobs. But even in the most practical classes, tests reveal very little retention of course material, according to 2012 data from the National Bureau of Economic Research and a 1991 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology and in some cases, no improvement in critical thinking, post-undergrad, in exchange for all that student debt.

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Bryan Caplan.

Most fascinating is a 1985 study from the Journal of Educational Psychology in which researchers tested high school and college students on their informal reasoning skills. Fourth-year high school students were only slightly better at informal reasoning than first-year high school students, and fourth-year college students were no better at informal reasoning than first-year college students. If education really showed students “how to think,” Caplan writes, then three additional years should strengthen their initial advantage.

The problems start in elementary school, Caplan says, when teachers give kids too many career options — like athlete, poet or historian — which are often “just pipe dreams.” His solution? Present kids with a job smorgasbord by age 12 that includes more realistic options and vocational careers. “People could start adult life much younger,” Caplan says, forecasting a wave of self-sufficient teens.

Despite Caplan’s controversial views, he comes off as mild-mannered, not arrogant or pushy. Fellow George Mason economics professor Tyler Cowen, who has known Caplan for more than 20 years, sees him as a “very caring person” — but also fearless. And while he doesn’t agree with Caplan’s views on education entirely (hardly anyone does), Cowen says his theories are “a needed wake-up call that have real impact.”

Among the most vocal of Caplan’s many critics is Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “There is substantial evidence that skills taught in school do in fact have huge payoffs for individuals and for nations as a whole,” Hanushek says. He agrees that U.S. education is flawed but believes school performance is to blame, and the solution is increased funding. The two academics put up their proverbial dukes earlier this year at a live debate hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. After advocating for less school funding, Caplan won the post-debate audience vote.

Does it bother Caplan that he’s attacking a system that provides him a paycheck? “I’m a whistleblower,” he says. “I have the prestige to be taken seriously.” Besides, the system isn’t broken for professors, Caplan says, pointing out that tenured professors are only in the classroom about 150 hours per year (2.88 hours per week).

When it comes to his own family, Caplan home-schools two of his four children. “I’m very concerned about handicapping them for college,” he says, noting that universities are often critical of nontraditional students. “Just because I wrote a book doesn’t mean the current system has changed.”

Though his wild ideas are viewed with extreme skepticism in the broader public, Caplan asserts they play well in the classroom. “My students warm up to the material because it speaks to their firsthand experiences,” he says. While Caplan plans to stay in academia and continue writing in his ample free time — he has a graphic novel on immigration due out next year — perhaps his Washington-area students will one day push forward his theory into actionable policy.

But they’ll do well to remember they first learned about it in school.

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