SoHo Forum debate: “All government support of higher education should be abolished?”

Last night I went to a SoHo Forum debate on education, with Ed Glaeser supporting government-funded education and Bryan Caplan opposing; I already knew most of Caplan’s case, from reading The Case Against Education.

By far the most interesting piece of (then unknown to me) data came from Glaeser, citing a paper or set of papers the examine national income growth from 1960 to the present (or 2010 or thereabouts) that find education seems to explain income growth but income growth doesn’t seem to explain education. I didn’t catch the names of the authors, but that sounds like one of the better pieces of evidence against The Case Against Education. I’ve been following reviews of the book and so far the critical arguments haven’t been good; most have already been addressed in the book, and the authors just missed them—or their pro-education worldview prevents them from reading and understanding.

To be sure, I’m sympathetic to criticism of Case; having worked for a long time in education I want Case to be wrong. But I cannot find any good arguments against it, either on my own or that others have put forth. Many people don’t like abstract symbol manipulation, despite the way that particular skill is fetishized in the education system. At the very least, putting forth more intelligent apprenticeship options is a good place to start.

Furthermore, I’ve long complained to friends that most of school is tedious and boring. For a while I’ve thought it’s boring because of whining risk:

Almost no teacher gets in trouble for being boring, but a teacher can get in trouble or can get in trouble for being many values of “interesting.” Even I’ve had that problem, and I’m not sure I’m that interesting an instructor, and I teach college students. Students who complain about school being boring get told that school is supposed to be boring. Students who complain about school being interesting (or “offensive,” or whatever) get much more attention.

But if education is really about signaling regarding conformity and conscientiousness, then boredom almost becomes a feature, rather than a bug. If one is willing to conscientiously do even very boring work, that’s a great labor market signal. If Caplan is correct school has been boring and will continue to be boring because no force pushes it not to be, except perhaps for the occasional idealistic teacher.

Still, I have a pet theory that education may really be about very high achievement among elites (who become scientific or artistic innovators) more than about mass education, the intellectual results of which Caplan does show to be… dubious. I don’t know how to test this theory and it is not original to me, although it takes new salience in light of Case. There’s an analogue to research here: most research is “wasteful,” but that’s because no one knows the answer till after it’s conducted; that’s why it’s called “research.” Most education may also be wasteful, but no one knows who is a waste to educate until it’s too late (up until I hit age 16 or so, I probably looked like a waste of scarce educational resources).

It’s always of interest to see someone in person who is only known on the page; I love, and often cite in propsals, Glaeser’s book The Triumph of the City, and in person he seems like one of those dapper titans of industry or now-extinct northeast, country-club Republicans of the ’50s.

Caplan posted his debate opening statement.

I didn’t think going in (and don’t think going out) that all forms of government support for education, higher or otherwise, ought to be abolished.

bryan-caplan-ed-glaeser

The Case Against Education — Bryan Caplan

The Case Against Education is a brilliant book that you should read, though you’ll probably reject its conclusions without really considering them. That’s because, as Caplan argues, most of us are prone to “Social Desirability Bias:” we want to say things that are popular and make people feel good, whether or not they’re true. Some true things may be socially desirable—but many false things may be too; the phrase “Don’t shoot the messenger” exists for a reason, as does the myth of Cassandra. We like to create scapegoats, and messengers are handy scapegoats. Simultaneously, we don’t like to take responsibility for our own ideas; and we like to collectively punish iconoclasts (at first, at least: later they may become idols, but first they must be castigated).

Caplan is an iconoclast but a data-driven one, and that’s part of what makes him unusual and special. And, to be sure, I myself am prone to the biases Caplan notes. Yet, as I read The Case Against Education, I couldn’t find many holes to poke in the argument. The book blends data and observation / anecdote well, and it also fits disturbingly well with my own teaching experiences. For example, Caplan notes that students find school boring and stultifying: “Despite teachers’ best efforts, most youths find high culture boring—and few change their minds in adulthood.” While “school is boring” seems obvious to most people, it’s also worth asking why. Many of the reasons Caplan gives are fine, but I’ll also add that “interesting” is often also “controversial,” and many controversial / interesting instructors will take heat, as I argue in “Ninety-five percent of people are fine — but it’s that last five percent:”

Almost no teacher gets in trouble for being boring, but a teacher can get in trouble or can get in trouble for being many values of “interesting.” Even I’ve had that problem, and I’m not sure I’m that interesting an instructor, and I teach college students.

It’s easy for outsiders to say that teachers should stand up to the vocal, unhappy minority. But it’s less easy to do that when a teacher relies on their job for rent and health insurance. It’s also less easy when the teacher worries about what administrators and principals will do and what could happen if the media gets involved or if the teacher gets demonized.

Despite the fact that no one actively wants school to be boring, the collection of forces operating on the school experience pushes it towards boredom. Many people, for example, are very interested in sex and drugs, but those topics also excite many students and parents, such that it’s difficult to say much that’s true about them in school.

As Caplan says, however, boredom is almost a feature, not a bug. Boring classes allow students to signal traits that employers value, like conscientiousness, intelligence, and conformity. Even if reading Ethan Frome is boring, being willing to tolerate Ethan Frome is important to people who would not themselves read Ethan Frome.

Caplan argues that most education is actually about signaling, not skill development. It’s notable how little we in as a society have improved education in the last two decades, when the Internet has opened up many new learning and signaling opportunities. Caplan has a theory about why: using weird counter-signaling efforts itself signals non-conformity and general weirdness (“‘alternative’ signals of conformity signal nonconformity”). So we’re stuck in a negative equilibrium.

He might be right. That said, I wonder if we’re just seeing a lag: twenty years is a long time by some standards, but in the history of education it’s a relatively short time. The problems with contemporary education also seem to argue that many employers would be well-served to ignore the signals sent by degree and search for alternate signals instead. Google claims to be doing this, but I don’t know of any researchers who’ve audited or studied Google’s internal data (if you do, please leave a pointer in the comments).

The people who most need to read this book are probably educators and high school students. The former probably won’t read it because it punctures some of the powerful myths and beliefs that keep them motivated. The latter probably won’t read it because high school students read very few books, and the ones most likely to read The Case Against Education are probably also likely to gain the most from higher education. So it’s another of these books that’s caught in a readerly catch-22.

Here is a Claudia Goldin paper, “The Race between Education and Technology: The Evolution of U.S. Educational Wage Differentials, 1890 to 2005;” as one person said on Twitter, “I agree with @bryan_caplan that the wage premium from education mainly comes from signaling, rather than learning vocational skills. But – I also believe widespread, generalist, higher ed can be a very good thing (as explained in [“The Race Between…”]).”

I also wonder about this: “employers throughout the economy defer to teachers’ opinions when they decide whom to interview, whom to hire, and how much to pay them.” Do they? Do most employers require transcripts and then actively use those transcripts? It seems that many do look for degrees but don’t look for grades.

One question, too, is why more people don’t go into various forms of consulting; smaller firms are less likely to be interested in credentials than larger ones. I do grant writing for nonprofits, public agencies, and some research-based businesses. Zero clients have asked about educational credentials (well, a few public agencies have superficial processes that ask about them, but the decision-makers don’t seem to care). Clients are much more interested in our experience and the skills demonstrated by our website and client list than they are in credentials. And when we’ve hired various people, like website programmers or graphic designers, we’ve never asked about education either, because we don’t care—we care if they can get the job done. In restaurants, I’ve never stopped a server or hostess to ask if the chef went to cooking school. So smaller firms may offer some respite from degree madness; if there is a market opportunity for avoiding expensive college and the credentials race (for individuals), it might be there.

Yet at the same time, I feel (perhaps wrongly) that school did help me become a better writer. “Feel” is a dangerous word—it’s hard to dispute feelings but easy to dispute data—yet I don’t know how else to describe it. When I read other people’s writing, especially other people’s proposals, I often think, “This helps explain why I have the job I do.” It’s possible to get through college and learn very little about writing. Occasionally managers will learn that I teach writing and say, “Why can’t college graduates write effectively?” An excellent question and one that requires 10,000 words of answer or no answer at all. But the alternative—not taking any writing classes—often seems worse.

Caplan also conducts many fascinating thought experiments, of sorts, although perhaps “contextualizes common practices and ideas” may be more accurate:

The human capital model doesn’t just imply all cheaters are wasting their time. It also implies all educators who try to prevent cheating are wasting their time. All exams might as well be take-home. No one needs to proctor tests or call time. No one needs to punish plagiarism—or Google random sentences to detect it. Learners get job skills and financial rewards. Fakers get poetic justice.

Signaling, in contrast, explains why cheating pays—and why schools are wise to combat it. In the signaling model, employers reward workers for the skills they think those workers possess. Cheating tricks employers into thinking you’re a better worker than you really are. The trick pays because unless everyone cheats all the time, students with better records are, on average, better workers.

Makes sense to me. I sometimes tell students that, if they manage to get through college without learning how to read and write effectively, no one comes back to ask me why. No college offers partial refunds to the unemployable who nonetheless graduate. The signal is the signal.

Many of you will not like The Case Against Education too because it is thorough. Caplan goes through his arguments, then many rebuttals, then rebuttals to the rebuttals. If you want a book that only goes one or two layers deep, this is the wrong book for you and you should stick to the Internet.

Many books also fail to convincingly answer the question, “What should we do about the problem identified?” Caplan doesn’t. He argues that public spending on education (or “education:” as much of what seems like education should be called signaling) should be eliminated altogether, while simultaneously acknowledging that this is only slightly more likely than someone jumping to the moon.

Caplan fulfills many of the conditions of myth, but probably not enough people will read this book to truly hate him. Which is a pity: as I said in the first line, the book is brilliant. But socially desirable persons will reject it, if they consider it at all. And the education machine will press on, a monstrous juice press squeezing every orange that enters its maw. Once I was the orange; now I am the press.

One other answer to “What education does?” may be “to keep options open” and “provide a base from which to build later.” Without some writing and numeracy skills, it’ll be hard to enter many careers; while school may do a lousy job of building them (as Caplan demonstrates), if the alternative to school nothing (i.e. Netflix, hanging out, and partying), school may be a better option than nothing.

As for optionality, I think of my friends, many artistically inclined, who got to their mid or late 20s and around that time got tired of working marginal jobs, struggling to pay rent, working in coffee shops, crashing on friends’ couches, etc. Things that seem glamorous at age 20 often seem depressing five or ten years later. Many of them have gone back to school of various kinds to get programming or healthcare jobs. In the former case, math is important, and in the latter case, biology and some other science knowledge is important. Those who blew off math or bio in high school or college struggle more in those occupations. So maybe education is about keeping at least some options open—or more options than would be open for someone who quits school or begins vocational ed in 8th grade.

Finally, education might be an elite phenomenon. We educate everyone, or, more realistically, attempt to educate everyone, in order to get a relatively small number of elite people into position to drive the entire culture forward. The people at the pinnacle of the scientific, technical, artistic, and social elites got there in part because they had access to education that was good enough to get them into the elite spheres where it’s possible to make a real difference.

I’m not sure I’m in those elite spheres, but I may be close, and at age 15 I probably didn’t look like such a good bet. Yet education continued and here I am, engaging in the kinds of conversations that could move the culture forward. If I’d been tracked differently at age 15 that might not’ve happened. Yes, the process is horrendously wasteful, but it’s useful to give many people a shot, even if most people go nowhere.

To be sure, I buy Caplan’s argument, but I’ve not seen this angle pursued by others, and it at least seems plausible. I also don’t know how one would measure the “education as elite phenomenon” argument, which is another weakness of my own point.

Still, I’ve become more of an elitist because of my involvement in the educational system, which shows that most students are in fact bored and don’t give a damn. When I started grad school I thought I could help students become more engaged by changing the nature of the short journal assignments: instead of just writing for me, students would start blogs that they would read and comment on. Education would become more peer-driven and collaborative. The material would seem relevant. Right?

After a semester or two of reactions that ranged from indifference at best to massive hostility at worst, I stopped and went back to the usual form of short written responses, printed, and handed in. That was easier on me and on the students, and it still at least exposed students to the idea of writing regularly. A few may have continued the practice. Most probably didn’t (and don’t). I learned a lot, maybe more than students, and I also learned that I’m a weirdo for my (extreme) interests in writing and language—but my own time in the education system and my own friend set had to some extent hidden that from me. Now, however, it’s so apparent that I wonder what 24-year-old me was thinking.

Caplan helps explain what I was thinking; many people who go into various kinds of teaching are probably optimists who themselves like school. They’re selected for being, in many cases, passionate weirdos. Personally, I like passionate weirdos and misfits and the people who don’t fit well into the school system (I’ve been all three). But I seem to be unusual in that respect too, though I wasn’t so weird that I couldn’t fit into the convention-making machine. A good thing, too—as Caplan notes, it’s individually rational to pursue educational credentials, even if the mass pursuit of those credentials may not be so good for society as a whole. Correlation is not causation, as you no doubt learned from your statistics classes and still understand today.

“Where does the hate for colleges come from?”

In an online discussion someone asked where the “overwhelming hate” for colleges comes from. I don’t think (many) people hate college or colleges, but many are baffled and unhappy about the higher-education situation—for good reason. I’m immersed in these issues, so to me the answers are obvious, but it’s useful to recall that some points “every knows” in one sub-culture are totally unknown in the wider culture. Plus, there may seem to be more hate towards colleges online because people online are systematically filtered for a set of opinions pretty far outside the mainstream; I suspect most normal people retain a pretty high and pretty positive view of college, colleges, and universities, while those who are familiar with the absurdity that is the modern student loan system and some other common challenges may be less positive. I can enumerate some culprits behind unhappiness with college as it’s presently constituted, including:

1. College costs have been outstripping inflation and wage growth for decades. This is well-known and obvious.

2. It’s not clear that most colleges are actually teaching much most of the time, per the book Academically Adrift—which also matches my own anecdotal teaching experience.

3. Related to #2, it seems that most colleges have evolved non-educational tracks for those who want them. Students who enter those tracks without realizing what they’re doing may regret their choices later, especially when they have to pay off student loans with low-value degrees that do little to build human capital.

4. See Bryan Caplan’s book The Case Against Education, which argues that most of the education system is about signaling, not human capital formation. If that’s true, we ought to work harder to find other ways to signal—among other things we ought to do differently.

5. It’s not clear where the money for college is going. It’s not going to instructors or instruction. So where is it disappearing into? Many blame administrators, sports, Title IX, bureaucracy, Baumol’s Cost Disease, etc., but I’m not sure what the real answer is.

6. The logical arguments are mostly in books, not online.

Some degrees still make a lot of sense: wages for many kinds of engineers and computer scientists remain high, as do wages for economics majors. The overall college premium is still high, but most of those average college premiums fail to account for major.

Note that the WSJ article, “U.S. Colleges Are Separating Into Winners and Losers: Schools that struggle to prepare students for success losing ground; ‘The shake-out is coming'” observes, “the pay advantage for college graduates over high-school graduates declined” in the past few years. That may be because the signaling value of a degree isn’t as strong as it is when it’s scarce. That may in turn be driving some to get graduate degrees—or to signal in alternative ways, like projects or online portfolios. If education is really a big IQ, conformity, and conscientiousness test, as Caplan argues, then it may be that more people who score low in those traits are still now managing to get degrees, lowering the overall and total premium.

I think the student-loan burden is underrated, too, especially considering the psychology of many undergrads and their families. When I was an undergrad, student loans felt like something to worry about… later. You, dear reader, can point out that this is irrational and stupid, and while you are correct, that mindset also seems to be very common. Apocalyptic language like, “I have seen an entire generation destroyed by student loans” is overwrought but also has some truth. Schools, in the meantime, are mostly party to the problem and have done almost nothing to substantially restrain costs (from the perspective of students). I’ve wondered out loud, “Why hasn’t someone tried to build or fund a very low-cost, very high-quality college?“, and so far I’ve not seen any really good answers.

I’m a very small, unimportant part of the college system, and I’m not seeing a huge amount of the massive amount of money spent on higher-ed come my way. If I had a good I had a good, actionable idea to fix the cost problem from the student and adjunct perspectives, I’d go attempt to implement it—but I don’t. If I saw a company that I thought could really reduce the cost of college, I’d try to go work for it.

At the same time, many if not most students contribute to the challenges by being almost totally uninterested in labor market signals or genuine learning; Caplan covers this as well. Again, yes, I’m sure that you, the person about to leave a well-thought-out comment about how you are/were different, are correct, but you are also a minority.

This comment is also useful, about why academic culture is messed up and incoherent from the grad student and young professor perspective. An incoherent, destructive culture doesn’t matter that much if prices are low. When prices are high, they matter a lot. The tenure system has a bunch of other pernicious problems and outcomes, but this piece is long enough, so we’ll table them.

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