February 15, 2019

Photo Credit: Getty Images/skynesher

We hear all the time about the gap between those with college degrees and those without. In 2015, the gap hit a record high: people who finished college earned 56% more than those who didn’t (other sources have the percentage even higher, including scholar Bryan Caplan). Over the past few years, then-President Barack Obama and Senator Bernie Sanders proposed bills to either increase college attainment or make public colleges tuition-free for all.

But Caplan is a contrarian on this topic. He says that “the world might be better off without college for everyone,” and believes it’s time to rethink our current approach to higher education.

Caplan is a professor of economics at George Mason University, and author of “The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money.” On this week’s show, he talks to us about why so many college graduates struggle to find a job, why employers increasingly require college degrees (or higher) from job applicants, and why he thinks that cutting government funding for education is the best solution.

Three Takeaways:

  • Caplan explains the phenomenon of “degree inflation” - employers increasingly demanding a college degree for jobs that previously did not require one. “We have a lot more taxi drivers and waiters that have college degrees now,” according to Caplan.
  • Caplan suggests that the government should spend a lot less on college education but more on vocational education and job training. A traditional four-year college degree is not for everyone, he argues, but vocational schools can offer a solid career path.
  • Caplan believes that rather than teaching students to be poets, historians or scientists, educators should encourage kids and teenagers to start a job at an earlier age. “How about we go and explore 20 realistic options for two weeks each when you're 12 years old? And then start trying to narrow it down,” says Caplan.

Listener Feedback:

We received a lot of comments about our interview with Bryan Caplan. Suzy Gallogly from Columbia, Maryland agreed with Caplan that there has been some level of degree inflation, but she strongly disagreed with his suggestion about reducing public spending on education as a possible remedy. 

“My opinion is that instead of cutting educational funding, we should be revamping the whole system so that high school graduates have a much more comprehensive and well-rounded education by the time they’re 18,” she wrote to us, adding that only “then we can combat the educational inflation and perhaps negate the need for a college education for many jobs like secretaries.” 

Sam Whitelaw, who lives in Portland, Oregon, caught our conversation while she was driving in her car and told us that she thought Caplan’s ideas were tantamount to, “giving up on public education.” She explained that as a former elementary teacher herself, she felt that teachers should, “help close the achievement gap and provide necessary life skills to all children.” 

 We heard from many educators about Caplan’s opinions. John Beckwith, a high school Spanish teacher from Boulder, Colorado, disputed Caplan’s assertion that the U.S. is failing at teaching world languages, but he agreed with the economist’s call for more vocational training for students. 

“Those in public education operate on the premise that all children should be educated with goals of becoming an astronaut, brain surgeon, aeronautical engineer, corporate attorney…. and to meet those goals believe that the standard study of language arts, math, science, and social studies will prepare them,” he wrote.

“Public education should certainly offer education that prepares students for those kinds of careers, but likely a majority of students, at least where I teach, would be well-served to learn to repair electronic devices, copy machines, automobiles, home appliances… or learn the skills needed to be a plumber, carpenter, mason, electrician, or operate heavy equipment, drive a trailer truck, prepare food, or skills for a range of other decent-paying, satisfying occupations,” he explained. He also noted that, even though he teaches Spanish, many of his students aren’t thrilled to be taking a foreign language. 

You can listen to some of the comments we received below. And don’t forget, we always enjoy hearing from you. You can always share your thoughts with us anytime. Drop us a line at innovationhub@wgbh.org, tweet us: @IHubRadio or give us a call at 617-684-5839.

More Reading:

  • Read this report from the Harvard Business School and learn why its authors think that degree inflation is hurting the American middle class.
  • This report from Georgetown University shows what happens financially – over the course of a lifetime – to those with bachelor’s degrees vs. those with high school diplomas.
  • A data set of educational attainment rates in the world.

jobs, Education, Bryan Caplan, student, college

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