College for Almost No One

Bryan Caplan, with whom I often disagree, is quite right about this:

From kindergarten on, students spend thousands of hours studying subjects irrelevant to the modern labor market. Why do English classes focus on literature and poetry instead of business and technical writing? Why do advanced-math classes bother with proofs almost no student can follow? When will the typical student use history? Trigonometry? Art? Music? Physics? Latin? The class clown who snarks “What does this have to do with real life?” is onto something.

The disconnect between college curricula and the job market has a banal explanation: Educators teach what they know—and most have as little firsthand knowledge of the modern workplace as I do. Yet this merely complicates the puzzle. If schools aim to boost students’ future income by teaching job skills, why do they entrust students’ education to people so detached from the real world? Because, despite the chasm between what students learn and what workers do, academic success is a strong signal of worker productivity….

The labor market doesn’t pay you for the useless subjects you master; it pays you for the preexisting traits you signal by mastering them….

Lest I be misinterpreted, I emphatically affirm that education confers some marketable skills, namely literacy and numeracy. Nonetheless, I believe that signaling accounts for at least half of college’s financial reward, and probably more.

Most of the salary payoff for college comes from crossing the graduation finish line….

Indeed, in the average study, senior year of college brings more than twice the pay increase of freshman, sophomore, and junior years combined. Unless colleges delay job training until the very end, signaling is practically the only explanation. This in turn implies a mountain of wasted resources—time and money that would be better spent preparing students for the jobs they’re likely to do….

In 2003, the United States Department of Education gave about 18,000 Americans the National Assessment of Adult Literacy. The ignorance it revealed is mind-numbing. Fewer than a third of college graduates received a composite score of “proficient”—and about a fifth were at the “basic” or “below basic” level….

Of course, college students aren’t supposed to just download facts; they’re supposed to learn how to think in real life. How do they fare on this count? The most focused study of education’s effect on applied reasoning, conducted by Harvard’s David Perkins in the mid-1980s, assessed students’ oral responses to questions designed to measure informal reasoning, such as “Would a proposed law in Massachusetts requiring a five-cent deposit on bottles and cans significantly reduce litter?” The benefit of college seemed to be zero: Fourth-year students did no better than first-year students….

… When we look at countries around the world, a year of education appears to raise an individual’s income by 8 to 11 percent. By contrast, increasing education across a country’s population by an average of one year per person raises the national income by only 1 to 3 percent. In other words, education enriches individuals much more than it enriches nations.

How is this possible? Credential inflation: As the average level of education rises, you need more education to convince employers you’re worthy of any specific job….

As credentials proliferate, so do failed efforts to acquire them. Students can and do pay tuition, kill a year, and flunk their finals…. Simply put, the push for broader college education has steered too many students who aren’t cut out for academic success onto the college track.

The college-for-all mentality has fostered neglect of a realistic substitute: vocational education. [“The World Might Be Better Off without College for Everyone“, The Atlantic, January 2018]

Caplan has been preaching this gospel for years. But he’s not the only one.

Katherine Mangu-Ward, writing in The Atlantic almost eight years ago, observed that

the phrase “higher education bubble” is popping up everywhere in recent months. This is thanks (in small part) to President Obama, who announced in his first State of the Union address that “every American will need to get more than a high school diploma.” But Americans have been fetishizing college diplomas for a long time now — Obama just reinforced that message and brought even more cash to the table. College has become a minimum career requirement, a basic human right, and a minimum income guarantee in the eyes of the American public. [“President Obama Is Not Impressed with Your High-School Diploma. Neither Is Wal-Mart.“]

Mangu-Ward is exactly right when she says this:

If we’re going to push every 18-year-old in the country into some kind of higher education, most people will likely be better off in a programs that involves logistics and linoleum, rather than ivy and the Iliad.

Vocational training, in other words. Which has languished, even as public schools have been dumbed-down.

Don Lee, writing at about the same time as Mangu-Ward, underscores the over-education — more correctly, mis-educaton — of America’s young adults:

[G]overnment surveys indicate that the vast majority of job gains this year have gone to workers with only a high school education or less, casting some doubt on one of the nation’s most deeply held convictions: that a college education is the ticket to the American Dream.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that seven of the 10 employment sectors that will see the largest gains during the next decade won’t require much more than some on-the-job training. These include home health care aides, customer service representatives, and food preparers and servers. Meanwhile, well-paying white-collar jobs, such as computer programming, have become vulnerable to outsourcing to foreign countries.

“People with bachelor’s degrees will increasingly get not very highly satisfactory jobs,” said W. Norton Grubb, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Education. “In that sense, people are getting more schooling than jobs are available.”

He noted that in 1970, 77 percent of workers with bachelor’s degrees were employed in professional and managerial occupations. By 2000, that had fallen to 60 percent.

Of the nearly 1 million new jobs created since hiring turned up in January, about half have been temporary census jobs. Most of the rest are concentrated in industries such as retail, hospitality and temporary staffing, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. [“Education Loses Its Luster“, reprinted in Akron Beacon Journal, June 21, 2010]

But that’s not news, either, this is from an anonymous piece that ran in The Atlantic almost ten years ago:

America, ever-idealistic, seems wary of the vocational-education track. We are not comfortable limiting anyone’s options. Telling someone that college is not for him seems harsh and classist and British, as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines. I sympathize with this stance; I subscribe to the American ideal. Unfortunately, it is with me and my red pen that that ideal crashes and burns.

Sending everyone under the sun to college is a noble initiative. Academia is all for it, naturally. Industry is all for it; some companies even help with tuition costs. Government is all for it; the truly needy have lots of opportunities for financial aid. The media applauds it—try to imagine someone speaking out against the idea. To oppose such a scheme of inclusion would be positively churlish. But one piece of the puzzle hasn’t been figured into the equation, to use the sort of phrase I encounter in the papers submitted by my English 101 students. The zeitgeist of academic possibility is a great inverted pyramid, and its rather sharp point is poking, uncomfortably, a spot just about midway between my shoulder blades.

For I, who teach these low-level, must-pass, no-multiple-choice-test classes, am the one who ultimately delivers the news to those unfit for college: that they lack the most-basic skills and have no sense of the volume of work required; that they are in some cases barely literate; that they are so bereft of schemata, so dispossessed of contexts in which to place newly acquired knowledge, that every bit of information simply raises more questions. They are not ready for high school, some of them, much less for college. [“In the Basement of the Ivory Tower”, June 2008]

In fact, when I entered college 60 years ago, I was among the 28 percent of high-school graduates then attending college. It was evident to me that about half of my college classmates didn’t belong in an institution of higher learning. Despite that, the college-enrollment rate among high-school graduates has since doubled.

It’s long past time to burst the higher-education bubble. For one thing, it would mean fewer subsidies for the academic enemies of liberty.

Related posts:
School Vouchers and Teachers’ Unions
Whining about Teachers’ Pay: Another Lesson about the Evils of Public Education
I Used to Be Too Smart to Understand This
The Higher-Education Bubble
The Public-School Swindle
Is College for Everyone?
Subsidizing the Enemies of Liberty
A Sideways Glance at Public “Education”
The Dumbing-Down of Public Schools

Not-So-Random Thoughts (X)

Links to the other posts in this occasional series may be found at “Favorite Posts,” just below the list of topics.

How Much Are Teachers Worth?

David Harsanyi writes:

“The bottom line,” says the Center for American Progress, “is that mid- and late-career teachers are not earning what they deserve, nor are they able to gain the salaries that support a middle-class existence.”

Alas, neither liberal think tanks nor explainer sites have the capacity to determine the worth of human capital. And contrasting the pay of a person who has a predetermined government salary with the pay earned by someone in a competitive marketplace tells us little. Public-school teachers’ compensation is determined by contracts negotiated long before many of them even decided to teach. These contracts hurt the earning potential of good teachers and undermine the education system. And it has nothing to do with what anyone “deserves.”

So if teachers believe they aren’t making what they’re worth — and they may well be right about that — let’s free them from union constraints and let them find out what the job market has to offer. Until then, we can’t really know. Because a bachelor’s degree isn’t a dispensation from the vagaries of economic reality. And teaching isn’t the first step toward sainthood. Regardless of what you’ve heard. (“Are Teachers Underpaid? Let’s Find Out,”, July 25, 2014)

Harsanyi is right, but too kind. Here’s my take, from “The Public-School Swindle“:

[P]ublic “education” — at all levels — is not just a rip-off of taxpayers, it is also an employment scheme for incompetents (especially at the K-12 level) and a paternalistic redirection of resources to second- and third-best uses.

And, to top it off, public education has led to the creation of an army of left-wing zealots who, for many decades, have inculcated America’s children and young adults in the advantages of collective, non-market, anti-libertarian institutions, where paternalistic “empathy” supplants personal responsibility.

Utilitarianism, Once More

EconLog bloggers Bryan Caplan and Scott Sumner are enjoying an esoteric exchange about utilitarianism (samples here and here), which is a kind of cost-benefit calculus in which the calculator presumes to weigh the costs and benefits that accrue to other persons.  My take is that utilitarianism borders on psychopathy. In “Utilitarianism and Psychopathy,” I quote myself to this effect:

Here’s the problem with cost-benefit analysis — the problem it shares with utilitarianism: One person’s benefit can’t be compared with another person’s cost. Suppose, for example, the City of Los Angeles were to conduct a cost-benefit analysis that “proved” the wisdom of constructing yet another freeway through the city in order to reduce the commuting time of workers who drive into the city from the suburbs.

Before constructing the freeway, the city would have to take residential and commercial property. The occupants of those homes and owners of those businesses (who, in many cases would be lessees and not landowners) would have to start anew elsewhere. The customers of the affected businesses would have to find alternative sources of goods and services. Compensation under eminent domain can never be adequate to the owners of taken property because the property is taken by force and not sold voluntarily at a true market price. Moreover, others who are also harmed by a taking (lessees and customers in this example) are never compensated for their losses. Now, how can all of this uncompensated cost and inconvenience be “justified” by, say, the greater productivity that might (emphasize might) accrue to those commuters who would benefit from the construction of yet another freeway.

Yet, that is how cost-benefit analysis works. It assumes that group A’s cost can be offset by group B’s benefit: “the greatest amount of happiness altogether.”

America’s Financial Crisis

Timothy Taylor tackles the looming debt crisis:

First, the current high level of government debt, and the projections for the next 25 years, mean that the U.S. government lacks fiscal flexibility….

Second, the current spending patterns of the U.S. government are starting to crowd out everything except health care, Social Security, and interest payments….

Third, large government borrowing means less funding is available for private investment….

…CBO calculates an “alternative fiscal scenario,” in which it sets aside some of these spending and tax changes that are scheduled to take effect in five years or ten years or never…. [T]he extended baseline scenario projected that the debt/GDP ratio would be 106% by 2039. In the alternative fiscal scenario, the debt-GDP ratio is projected to reach 183% of GDP by 2039. As the report notes: “CBO’s extended alternative fiscal scenario is based on the assumptions that certain policies that are now in place but are scheduled to change under current law will be continued and that some provisions of law that might be difficult to sustain for a long period will be modified. The scenario, therefore, captures what some analysts might consider to be current policies, as opposed to current laws.”…

My own judgement is that the path of future budget deficits in the next decade or so is likely to lean toward the alternative fiscal scenario. But long before we reach a debt/GDP ratio of 183%, something is going to give. I don’t know what will change. But as an old-school economist named Herb Stein used to say, “If something can’t go on, it won’t.” (Long Term Budget Deficits,Conversable Economist, July 24, 2014)

Professional economists are terribly low-key, aren’t they? Here’s the way I see it, in “America’s Financial Crisis Is Now“:

It will not do simply to put an end to the U.S. government’s spending spree; too many State and local governments stand ready to fill the void, and they will do so by raising taxes where they can. As a result, some jurisdictions will fall into California- and Michigan-like death-spirals while jobs and growth migrate to other jurisdictions…. Even if Congress resists the urge to give aid and comfort to profligate States and municipalities at the expense of the taxpayers of fiscally prudent jurisdictions, the high taxes and anti-business regimes of California- and Michigan-like jurisdictions impose deadweight losses on the whole economy….

So, the resistance to economically destructive policies cannot end with efforts to reverse the policies of the federal government. But given the vast destructiveness of those policies — “entitlements” in particular — the resistance must begin there. Every conservative and libertarian voice in the land must be raised in reasoned opposition to the perpetuation of the unsustainable “promises” currently embedded in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — and their expansion through Obamacare. To those voices must be added the voices of “moderates” and “liberals” who see through the proclaimed good intentions of “entitlements” to the economic and libertarian disaster that looms if those “entitlements” are not pared down to their original purpose: providing a safety net for the truly needy.

The alternative to successful resistance is stark: more borrowing, higher interest payments, unsustainable debt, higher taxes, and economic stagnation (at best).

For the gory details about government spending and economic stagnation, see “Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Spending Inhibits Economic Growth” and “The True Multiplier.”

Climate Change: More Evidence against the Myth of AGW

There are voices of reason, that is, real scientists doing real science:

Over the 55-years from 1958 to 2012, climate models not only significantly over-predict observed warming in the tropical troposphere, but they represent it in a fundamentally different way than is observed. (Ross McKittrick and Timothy Vogelsang, “Climate models not only significantly over-predict observed warming in the tropical troposphere, but they represent it in a fundamentally different way than is observed,” excerpted at Watt’s Up With That, July 24, 2014)

Since the 1980s anthropogenic aerosols have been considerably reduced in Europe and the Mediterranean area. This decrease is often considered as the likely cause of the brightening effect observed over the same period. This phenomenon is however hardly reproduced by global and regional climate models. Here we use an original approach based on reanalysis-driven coupled regional climate system modelling, to show that aerosol changes explain 81 ± 16 per cent of the brightening and 23 ± 5 per cent of the surface warming simulated for the period 1980–2012 over Europe. The direct aerosol effect is found to dominate in the magnitude of the simulated brightening. The comparison between regional simulations and homogenized ground-based observations reveals that observed surface solar radiation, as well as land and sea surface temperature spatio-temporal variations over the Euro-Mediterranean region are only reproduced when simulations include the realistic aerosol variations. (“New paper finds 23% of warming in Europe since 1980 due to clean air laws reducing sulfur dioxide,” The Hockey Schtick, July 23, 2014)

My (somewhat out-of-date but still useful) roundup of related posts and articles is at “AGW: The Death Knell.”

Crime Explained…

…but not by this simplistic item:

Of all of the notions that have motivated the decades-long rise of incarceration in the United States, this is probably the most basic: When we put people behind bars, they can’t commit crime.

The implied corollary: If we let them out, they will….

Crime trends in a few states that have significantly reduced their prison populations, though, contradict this fear. (Emily Badger, “There’s little evidence that fewer prisoners means more crime,” Wonkblog, The Washington Post, July 21, 2014)

Staring at charts doesn’t yield answers to complex, multivariate questions, such as the causes of crime. Ms. Badger should have extended my work of seven years ago (“Crime, Explained“). Had she, I’m confident that she would have obtained the same result, namely:

VPC (violent+property crimes per 100,000 persons) =


+346837BLK (number of blacks as a decimal fraction of the population)

-3040.46GRO (previous year’s change in real GDP per capita, as a decimal fraction of the base)

-1474741PRS (the number of inmates in federal and State prisons in December of the previous year, as a decimal fraction of the previous year’s population)

The t-statistics on the intercept and coefficients are 19.017, 21.564, 1.210, and 17.253, respectively; the adjusted R-squared is 0.923; the standard error of the estimate/mean value of VPC = 0.076.

The coefficient and t-statistic for PRS mean that incarceration has a strong, statistically significant, negative effect on the violent-property crime rate. In other words, more prisoners = less crime against persons and their property.

The Heritability of Intelligence

Strip away the trappings of culture and what do you find? This:

If a chimpanzee appears unusually intelligent, it probably had bright parents. That’s the message from the first study to check if chimp brain power is heritable.

The discovery could help to tease apart the genes that affect chimp intelligence and to see whether those genes in humans also influence intelligence. It might also help to identify additional genetic factors that give humans the intellectual edge over their non-human-primate cousins.

The researchers estimate that, similar to humans, genetic differences account for about 54 per cent of the range seen in “general intelligence” – dubbed “g” – which is measured via a series of cognitive tests. “Our results in chimps are quite consistent with data from humans, and the human heritability in g,” says William Hopkins of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, Georgia, who heads the team reporting its findings in Current Biology.

“The historical view is that non-genetic factors dominate animal intelligence, and our findings challenge that view,” says Hopkins. (Andy Coghlan, “Chimpanzee brain power is strongly heritable,New Scientist, July 10, 2014)

Such findings are consistent with Nicholas Wade’s politically incorrect A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History. For related readings, see “‘Wading’ into Race, Culture, and IQ’.” For a summary of scholarly evidence about the heritability of intelligence — and its dire implications — see “Race and Reason — The Achievement Gap: Causes and Implications.” John Derbyshire offers an even darker view: “America in 2034” (American Renaissance, June 9, 2014).

The correlation of race and intelligence is, for me, an objective matter, not an emotional one. For evidence of my racial impartiality, see the final item in “My Moral Profile.”

Subsidizing the Enemies of Liberty

If there is a professional class that is almost solidly aligned against liberty it is the teachers and administrators who control the ideas that are pumped into the minds of students from kindergarten through graduate school. How are they aligned against liberty? Most of them are leftists, which means that they are statists who are dedicated to the suppression of liberty in favor of current left-wing orthodoxies. These almost always include the coddling of criminals, unrequited love for America’s enemies, redistribution of income and jobs toward less-productive (and non-productive) persons, restrictions on speech, and the destruction of civil society’s bulwarks: religion, marriage, and family.

In any event, spending on education in the United States amounted to $1.1 trillion in 2010,* about 8 percent of GDP.  Most of that $1.1 trillion — $900 billion, in fact — was spent on public elementary and secondary schools and public colleges and universities.* In other words, your tax dollars support the leftists who teach your children and grandchildren to bow at the altar of the state, to placate the enemies of liberty at home and abroad, and to tear down the traditions that have bound people in mutual trust and respect.

So gulled are Americans by the education lobby that voters routinely approve bond issues and elect legislators who promise to spend more on brick-and-mortar, high-tech monuments to educators’ egos. As a result, per-student spending** by public-school systems (K-12) — in constant dollars — was 2.5 times higher in 2010 than in 1970; in public colleges and universities, it was 1.6 times higher. Has education improved that much in 40 years? To ask the question is to answer it.

Key beneficiaries of the rise in per-student spending are education majors. In addition to commanding salaries above what they could earn if the private sector, given their less-than scintillating mental acuity (e.g., table 4 here), they have a lot of time off, good health insurance plans, and generous retirement packages. For all of that, they are sheltered from accountability by union contracts and the education groupies who serve on boards of education — for the prestige, for the connections, and often as a stepping stone to higher office.

But the education majors who populate teaching and administrative jobs in K-12 schools have not been the only beneficiaries of the “demand” for greater per-student spending. Given the ability of most educators and administrators to move between public and private institutions — especially at the university level — the rising “demand” for public education has fueled a kind of educational arms race that has pushed a large segment of the professoriate into the upper reaches of the nation’s income distribution.

And what do tax-paying Americans get for their money? A strong left-wing bias, which is inculcated at universities and spreads throughout public schools (and a lot of private schools). This has been going on, in earnest, since the end of World War II. And, yet, the populace is roughly divided between hard-headed conservatives and squishy-minded “liberals.” The persistence of the divide speaks well for the dominance of nature over nurture. But it does not change the fact that American taxpayers have been subsidizing the enemies of liberty who dominate the so-called education system in this country.
* Estimates from Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract 2012, Table 220. School Expenditures, by Type of Control and Level of Instruction in Constant (2009 to 2010) Dollars.

** Derived from spending estimates given in Table 220 and estimates of number of students given in Table 219. School Enrollment, With Projections.

*   *   *

Related reading: Matthew Vadum, “You Subsidize Leftist Anarchy,” American Thinker, February 19, 2014

Related posts:
Affirmative Action: Two Views from the Academy
What Is the Point of Academic Freedom?
How to Deal with Left-Wing Academic Blather
It’s Not Anti-Intellectualism, Stupid
The Case Against Campus Speech Codes
Lefty Profs
Apropos Academic Freedom and Western Values
Diagnosing the Left
Why So Few Free-Market Economists?
Affirmative Action: Two Views from the Academy, Revisited
Academic Bias
The Higher Education Bubble
Undermining the Free Society
Intellectuals and Capitalism
The Left
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
Affirmative Action for Conservatives and Libertarians?
The Public-School Swindle
Is College for Everyone?
Where’s the (Intellectual) Beef?
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy