Princeton University Press will published Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education in 2017. I’m reading through the penultimate draft right now, and I’ve been fortunate to have Caplan guest lecture on this topic in my classes a number of times. As an educator, I find his results upsetting, but sometimes the truth is upsetting. Caplan’s main thesis is that at least 30% of the college wage premium can be explained by the signaling model of higher education, though he thinks it’s really more like 80%. (The signaling model holds that completing a college degree signals to employers that you are a smart, perseverant conformist, while the human capital model holds that going to school makes you better.)
Defenders of liberal arts education, or of higher education in general, claim that obtaining a college degree tends to develop a wide range of soft skills. But that’s an empirical claim, and it turns out that educational psychologists and others have attempted to test this thesis. In general, as Caplan reviews in the book, they tend to come up with null results.
If so, what does that tell us about the ethics of selling higher education? For example, how should we respond to webpages like this one, which defend the value of a liberal arts education? Notice how the page asserts that studying liberal arts produces a wide range of aretaic benefits. But does it?
Here’s a thought experiment:
Suppose it turned out that Pfizer has been selling a drug, since 1850, which A) costs $240,000, B) requires four years of treatment, and C) which they claim makes patients more open-minded, smarter, better and deeper thinkers, wiser, more creative, better at expressing themselves, better at understanding others, etc.
Now suppose Pfizer not only had no proper evidence that the drug had this effect, but in fact other medical scientists had studied the drug, and over and over again found a null effect. We’d probably think Pfizer had committing fraud or engaged in negligent advertising. We’d probably demand the government shut Pfizer down or fine them. Pfizer might face a class-action lawsuit.
Fortunately, Pfizer isn’t so unethical that it would do such a thing.
However, the thought experiment above is real. Substitute “colleges,” “liberal arts education,” and “educational psychologists” for “Pfizer,” “drug,” and “other medical scientists.” Voila!