Towson University’s commencement, a lovely event on a perfect May afternoon, aroused mixed emotions in me this year, thanks to Bryan Caplan. I had recently listened, twice, to his excellent talk at a Cato Institute event whose topic is the title of this blog post. So while I was proud of my university and happy for all the students graduating, my heart went out to the many students, at Towson and around the country, who had been urged to go to college but were too poorly prepared to complete it. For them, college was a waste of their money and precious time.
I could not help regretting the other, better ways in which resources would be used if the government did not pour excessive quantities into what we call, not always accurately, higher education.
I recommend Caplan’s talk. It is entertaining, instructive, very persuasive, and therefore disturbing.
A taste from his conclusion:
The main reason the labor market rewards college degrees is not that college instills job skills. Instead [the] labor market rewards college degrees because graduation signals pre-existing intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity.
Selfishly speaking, college is a good deal for good students, a mediocre deal for mediocre students, and a bad deal for bad students.
Socially speaking, college is a terrible deal for taxpayers. Under plausible assumptions, the social rate of return is sharply negative even for good students.