The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money

Category: Schools & Teaching
Author: Bryan Caplan
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About This Book

Why we need to stop wasting public funds on education

Despite being immensely popular--and immensely lucrative―education is grossly overrated. In this explosive book, Bryan Caplan argues that the primary function of education is not to enhance students' skill but to certify their intelligence, work ethic, and conformity―in other words, to signal the qualities of a good employee. Learn why students hunt for easy As and casually forget most of what they learn after the final exam, why decades of growing access to education have not resulted in better jobs for the average worker but instead in runaway credential inflation, how employers reward workers for costly schooling they rarely if ever use, and why cutting education spending is the best remedy.

Caplan draws on the latest social science to show how the labor market values grades over knowledge, and why the more education your rivals have, the more you need to impress employers. He explains why graduation is our society's top conformity signal, and why even the most useless degrees can certify employability. He advocates two major policy responses. The first is educational austerity. Government needs to sharply cut education funding to curb this wasteful rat race. The second is more vocational education, because practical skills are more socially valuable than teaching students how to outshine their peers.

Romantic notions about education being "good for the soul" must yield to careful research and common sense―The Case against Education points the way.


by gnicholas   2022-09-09
Much of the discussion here reminds me of Bryan Caplan's work on the relative value of what students learn versus the value of education as signaling.

His piece in the NYT was posted here [1] a few hours ago. It's a super-condensed version of his book, which goes into great detail on his research hypothesis versus others, and policy recommendations (which he admits are too extreme to be enacted).


by HakaF1   2021-12-10

College is worth it(on average) for the individual but maybe not for the society as a whole. It may mostly be just signaling. An expensive IQ and marshmallow test.

by VowXhing   2021-12-10

Which is why everyone needs to read this book

by [deleted]   2021-12-10

I'll just leave this here. The guy actually came and talked at my school.

by nullshun   2019-11-17

Big discrepancy? I see a range from ~$50k in low cost-of-living states to ~$70k in high cost-of-living states. Seems like splitting hairs, considering that the value contributed to society by the typical teacher is less than zero.

by shanulu   2019-11-17

I want to be clear I am not against art.

Art itself does nothing to help you in your job unless your job is of course in the Arts. I'm basically paraphrasing a book, The Case Against Education (found here). Humans do not retain information well after a summer break, let alone years later. He also breaks down subjects and their use in jobs across the country. Calculus is useless to almost everyone save for a small amount of jobs. Second language? Worthless for all but a small amount of jobs. English/Literature/History, also a waste of time and resources. Unless you are a historian or work in a museum. I don't have the book handy here at work but I remember Algebra I was a very relevant math course that many people use across many different vocations.

The point he drives home is we use a ridiculous amount of time and manpower to teach children stuff they don't need or can learn on their own if they were inclined. Especially so considering the technology at our fingertips. This isn't even taking into account the subjective nature of art itself.

by puntiospilatos   2019-07-21

There's a pretty good book that details a bunch of studies.

by PlayerDeus   2019-07-21

If you are really interested in education, read books, you can start with this one:

Also on amazon:

You can also listen to an interview with him if you don't want to read:

by FlipChicken   2019-07-21

Here's another book by the co-author.

Look, you say in the comic that you guys disagree on some things, but seriously? This guy wants to privatize education and force plebs to take vocational education. He's a fucking libertarian corporate goon. I can't take anything he says seriously.

by asabjorn   2019-05-18
> No one is saying we shouldn't have new generations. We should stop growing the population. This means the number of births and the number of death each year would be about the same.

The problem in the west is not a growing population, but a decreasing one.

> The max population of the earth is debatable, but the fact that there is a limit is not.

Yes, but here we are talking about the US population of $327 million decreasing. The population on earth is 7.53 billion and it is growing elsewhere. Are you arguing that a reduction of the US population serves some larger purpose so we should not be concerned about our culture?

> As far as fewer inventions, why focus on giving everyone a good education? Then we would have more than enough people to give us the technology needed to survive.

I'll focus on higher education since in the US other levels are both free and mandatory.

Access to personal growth opportunities is very important. However, data indicate universities are often not the answer to that and it is also questionable if universities makes someone more creative [1]. Regardless 60% and increasing of the US population has taken some college.

In addition to this it is worthwhile considering what the less creative people are taught to follow in universities. Universities seem to be the center of our cultural decay and an anti-intellectual attitude of not teaching core ideas have taken hold in many schools.

Why do you think higher education would help create more innovation?


by asabjorn   2019-01-20
So the three largest problems for millenials:

- large and increasing cost of housing due to artificial restrictions of housing through zoning and housing permitting

- large and increasing cost of education due to subsidized education with no cost control of the product, leading to bloat in administration and unnecessary spending at universities [cost increase is both monetary and in time due to grade inflation]

- opportunities are increasingly centered in jobs and cities where the two previous problems are aggravated the most

Neither of these are productive uses of the amount of debt millenials accrue for this purpose.

University education is mostly signaling that you are conscientious, smart enough and execute an imposed set of tasks over an extended period of time [1]. The book in the link argue although an individual benefit from graduating at a good college the society as a whole does not get extra value from more people needing a college education to get a job. Maybe we could get a cheaper signal for this?

When buying a home housing has the main purpose of sheltering a family. Short-term increases in house prices lead to a decline in births among non-owners and a net increase among owners [2]. With decreasing birth rates that is already below replacement in the west making it impossible for most to buy and making rent crazy high seem like an incredibly short sighted idea.



Edit: added extra info on education having a time cost. This is Peter Thiels long-standing point.

by Kallikrein5   2019-01-13

Expect that the overwhelming evidence is that education does not make people smart .

by Beej67   2019-01-13

> This is just rank partisan propaganda. A living wage net benefits society by every available metric. It also has either a positive or neutral effect on unemployment levels, depending on area.

Please explain why a $100/hr minimum wage is a bad idea. Let's start there.

> Automation is coming anyway, and using that an an excuse for poverty wages is a Koch bothers special. Which is why your saying it. Automation is a separate issue from poverty wages.

Holy shit, wow. If I can pay a dude $8/hr to do a job for me, or a robot $12, I'll pay the dude. If the minimum wage ups to $15, I'll pay the robot. It is literally that simple.

> LOL, this is just false.

Baseload problem. Duck Curve. Look into it. California made too much solar and had to quit. Duck Curve. Base load. Technical issues.

> And yes, Nuclear is a great option, but it takes a long time to build, and is not the answer everywhere. Just some places. Again, it's context dependent

Yes, the context is base load. There are no kabillion joule batteries to stick excess power in. You have to meet the demand as it happens, and oversupply burns your grid out.

> Viewing the Trump tax cuts as anything other than a disaster is pure delusion. This an objective fact for everyone but the wealthiest Americans.

I want you to say the words: "doubling the standard deduction didn't help the poor." Say that phrase for me.

The Trump tax plan was a fiscal disaster because it's going to blow up the deficit and saddle future generations with insane debt. But it objectively helped the poor way more than pushing them out of a job with a $15 minimum wage would.

> No, it isn't, no, it isn't and no it isn't. You're wrong. And finding examples of dumb college credits/subject focus is not an argument.

> The reality is, these programs are earned benefits,

Yes, and they are being pissed away three times faster than they should because our healthcare costs three times as much, because health providers are a nested onion of cartels, obstructionism, and graft. A PhD chemist could probably manufacture those Pharma Bro AIDS pills in his basement for a dollar a pill, but he's not allowed to. Who prevents him from doing it? Think long and hard about that question.

by HardCrystal   2018-11-10

> have them do the work.

There is literally no more effective learning method than this.

Everything else is forgotten within 3 months. Look up knowledge retention rates for state-funded education.

It is horrible and utter waste of everyone's time and money.

by SmallBoysenberry   2018-11-10

For a start, me and my mates don't see a more progressive future (the vision you outlined) as a better one in most aspects of our life for us or the average Australian.

Let's go through the issues that you have raised.

  1. "It's well known that wealth and income inequality have been spiralling out of control." My main thought is that it can be fixed but your policies are not the way to go and you ought to read this book about reducing corruption / political favours in Australia, it basically sums up my feelings on the issue and shows how to reduce inequality in a fair way by eliminating the "Game of Mates" rather than by just taxing normal people as you suggest.

  2. "Property prices remain incredibly high." This is only in Sydney and Melbourne, and prices are actually starting to decrease now in Sydney. Even in Brisbane, the 3rd largest city you can buy a house for a reasonable amount (say 400K). Also somewhat related to the next point, if we stop wasting so much money on education we can reduce stamp duty and other state / federal taxes which will allow people to afford homes easier. This is an affordability problem, we need to find ways to allow people to EARN more and KEEP more by paying less tax so they can afford homes. Removing negative gearing and cap gains tax actually will have minimal impact as studies have shown.

  3. "Education and healthcare funding is not keeping up with demand." Lets start with education spending. Similar to the USA, per capita education spending has massively increased with student results remaining stagnant. I don't know much about healthcare, but would assume that Labor has the advantage on this.

  4. "We have absurd energy prices and yet nobody wants to pull back from coal and gas." Let me tell you that this argument does not make logical or economic sense. Having coal and gas gives us MORE options not LESS options. We can use coal/gas where it is cheaper, and then solar/wind/storage where that is cheaper. Limiting your options does not make your decisions mathematically optimal.

  5. "The NBN is in crisis." I will give you this one. There is some hope that internet satellite (e.g from SpaceX) will massively increase competition and provide high speed internet to the entire world.

  6. "Media conglomeration is on the rise." I don't think this is a problem because of the rise of new forms of media and ways to get information. I don't know anyone under 25 that actually has a TV or reads a newspaper anymore. You need to fight the system not just complain that the government isn't doing enough. (Look at how the right wing is taking over youtube / social media). The influence of big tech companies like Google and Facebook is worrying, but no party in Australia can do much about that. That is up to the EU and US.

  7. "Increasing sexism and racism." Increasing sexism? I really doubt this, unless you mean sexist against men. We are now having quotas for police / firefighters / army and reduced standards which will reduce the effectiveness of these bodies by promoting ideology over actual merit. Same thing in universities, universities now have a vast majority of female students. Yet we still see female only scholarships and pandering that is acting like women are still some disadvantaged group. Most men are sick of all of this and want a merit based system rather than women getting unfair advantages which is actually what is sexist. And just take a look at the WGEA. Just considering that we have a federal government body trying to fix the "wage gap" which has been thoroughly debunked is actually ridiculous. Just because differences between women and men exist, doesn't equal sexism. People have different priorities in their lives. If women want to focus less on paid work in their life then that is their business and you have no right to say that is wrong. Fundamentally the right wing believes more in equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. We all have the opportunity to apply for the jobs, but the men might be more suited, or the women might make working less of a priority in their life. And nothing is wrong with that. "Increasing racism." Not really going to answer this one as it doesn't deserve much of a response, but opposing immigration to reduce impacts to cost of living and the living standards of the future of our country isn't racist in my opinion.

  8. Climate change. I agree that Labor would be better at dealing with this, due to the carbon tax which is a good economic incentive system to reduce emissions.

Liberal Party

  • Wins on Education (Needs to be cut significantly, as empirical and logical evidence is proving this to be a waste of money and time which can actually increase inequality.)
  • Wins on Immigration
  • Wins on Sexism (No quotas, believes in individual choice of men and women and accepts that this might result in different outcomes.)
  • Wins on Energy Prices
  • Wins on Housing Prices (Via lower taxes, only a marginal win. Neither party would influence the market much.)
  • Wins on Economic Policy (Lower company tax rates, less distorted market system, not wanting to change the refund of dividend franking credits, in general seems to understand economics better rather than being populist with policies that sound good but don't make much sense.)

Labor Party

  • Wins on Health
  • Wins on Climate Change
  • Wins on NBN

Both Loses

So in summary. The issues that Labor wins at, have much easier solutions technology wise (global satellite internet, biotech, solar and wind will out compete the cost of coal / gas eventually anyway). This leaves me to vote for Liberal for the issues which actually require fixing by the government.

by SmallBoysenberry   2018-11-10

I know people won't like to hear this. But this book basically shows that education is basically just [signalling](\) ). The thing is though, that he also shows that people that have higher degrees (like Bachelor's or Master's) actually earn more money even if they are employed in fields like being a bartender or waiter funnily enough. I guess it is literally becoming true that you need a degree to help get these jobs (at least the higher end of these).

Everyone getting a Bachelors degree is basically just the same as everyone having a high school diploma. It is like standing up in a concert to see better, if you do it that is fine, but then if everyone does it we are all in the same position again.

by Matticus_Rex   2018-11-10
We have decent data on this, and college is still worth it (for the individual) for all above-average students. Its social returns (which is some of what she's getting at without the vocabulary for it) are near-zero or negative, however, despite the many tropes about "an educated society" to the contrary.

For a much, much deeper discussion of this issue and the factors involved, read The Case Against Education by Bryan Caplan ( It's one of the more careful social science books I've ever read, and while it comes to controversial conclusions, even if you disagree with them you'll learn a lot about the issues by reading it.

by joaorico   2018-09-07
This is a bit of a strange article.

First, "in his recent book" refers to his 2011 book [1]. And Christensen has been prophesying this general bankruptcy "in the next decade" since that time. [2]

In any case it's interesting to think about the larger argument of the future of traditional higher education in general versus online education.

Bryan Caplan's thesis that (the state should cut funding for higher education because) higher education is mostly about signalling 3 things is a good tool. He argues that higher education signals a combination of intelligence, conscientiousness and conformity. The combination of the 3 is crucial for the model. [3]

Online education, and more generally self-education, fails on the conformity side. Companies do not want in general to risk such non-conformists, when they can hire from a stream of fresh graduates (smart, hard-working and relatively conformist).

Also, I think the socialization, friendships and networking that happen in the university are extremely valuable and not easily replaced by online education (where and with who can a smart, driven 18 year old hang out while studying and learning for 4 years on MOOCs and textbooks?)

And in addition, I hope, traditional universities are starting to improve their teaching methods (eg, flipped classroom, peer instruction) to multiply the pedagogical and motivational value they offer vs MOOCs.

For online education to replace traditional higher ed, it might require taking into account these factors. Could something like workspaces for freelancers or remote workers - but for studying - replace the traditional institution and the above benefits? Such that, for example, you would not be seen as an extreme non-conformist by not enrolling in a university?

Also, outside the US, tuition costs is often much lower. An online STEM degree, say a certified online masters in software engineering such as coursera or edx, could easily be more expensive than regular (or even the best) university.



(To be clear, he argues that from the individual's perspective, university is still net positive, if you have what it takes to finish the degree and don't get too much in debt. It's the state that should cut funding since it's inflating credentials.)