The value of a college education is clear. People who attend college earn a significant wage premium over those with only a high school degree as the time spent in college supposedly teaches valuable skills that will transfer to the workplace. Increasingly, many have argued that everybody should attend college, that college is a fundamental human right as well as an investment in the future. A more educated society will also be a more productive, more innovative, and more balanced one.
I disagree. I’ve spent almost my entire life in the education system and my perspective on the value of education does not follow this standard view at all. It’s not that I think education has nothing to offer. I’ve been able to teach introductory and intermediate macroeconomics over the last couple years and it has been one of the most fulfilling experiences I’ve ever had. I’ve spent years learning and thinking about macroeconomics and being able to share that with new students is something I would never want to give up. The education system has worked great for me. It probably works great for anyone whose goal is to learn or share information and ideas. But I’m not sure it works so well for people who just want a better job.
Economics teaches that increasing competition in a market tends to drive down prices. In recent years, the internet has introduced a flood of competitors for the traditional education system. A student in 1950 who wanted to learn linear algebra or differential equations had relatively few options. Today, they can take an entire course on Khan Academy or Coursera for free. Google almost any question and some resource will appear to help answer it. Wikipedia alone has as much information as any college library. Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez want free education for all. It’s already available. And yet despite the rise of these potential competitors to physical universities, the price of attending college has skyrocketed instead of fallen.
There’s a few explanations for why internet alternatives for education have not decreased the cost of traditional education. One is that traditional education is just so much better than trying to learn from an online course that it is still worth paying more to actually go to college. And there’s certainly some truth to this point, even if it’s only because of the increase in commitment that comes from a teacher, exams and GPA driving you. But is it $50,000 a year better? In my own experience, which includes many hours spent on Khan Academy because the actual professors can’t teach, absolutely not.
A more plausible explanation is that traditional colleges and online learning are not actually competitors at all. There’s one thing that Khan academy can never offer that Harvard can – a Harvard diploma. And it’s the diploma that employers care about. Bryan Caplan has convincingly argued that the benefit of a college education is mostly signaling. The skills you learn in college aren’t really what employers are after, but learning those skills shows you are a person who is capable and intelligent. Even as somebody who still uses much of what I learned in college economics and math classes, I still took a bunch of classes that were essentially useless. Can’t we come up with a better way of signaling these traits that doesn’t involve spending years of our lives listening to professors drone on about topics we don’t really care about or have any use for?
Modern universities have become a strange amalgamation of different features. On the academic side are professors who care mostly about their own research teaching students who care mostly about grades. But colleges also serve as quasi hotels complete with state of the art gyms and world class dining facilities. Some schools even seem to be more about glorification of their football or basketball teams than anything else (why athletics and school should be smushed together I will never understand). And on top of everything is the idea that all of this is somehow supposed to prepare students to work. Why?
Instead of college, what if people simply paid to be trained by employers in their desired fields? Would Google turn down a proposal for an aspiring programmer to work for them for a year for $10,000 (paid to Google not by Google). People who are already upset by unpaid internships might be horrified by the thought of negative internships, but why is paying to get a year of real world work experience worse than paying even more to go to college? A liberal arts education can still be valuable for a lot of people. Maybe it’s worth paying $50,000 a year for the knowledge and discourse that comes with the college experience. That option can still exist for those who want it. But for those who don’t, they should be able to get only the skills they need and move on.
The other important parts of college life can still remain as well. It would be easy to set up communities for young people to live together. College sports are big enough on their own to survive without the academic component. And there are plenty of ways for new workers to signal their worth to future employees. I’m not sure how we got in this equilibrium of college being the only ticket to a well-paying job, but I think it’s time to find a way out of it.