Bryan Caplan on Education


Kurt Bouwhuis, Mackinac Center Intern

Who should and shouldn’t go to college?

Bryan Caplan: There are two ways to read this question. One is: “Who gets a good financial and/or personal return from college?” My answer: people in the top 25 percent of academic ability who also have the work ethic to actually finish college. The other way to read this is: “For whom is college attendance socially beneficial?” My answer: no more than 5 percent of high-school graduates, because college is mostly what economists call a “signaling game.” Most college courses teach few useful job skills; their main function is to signal to employers that students are smart, hard-working, and conformist. The upshot: Going to college is a lot like standing up at a concert to see better. Selfishly speaking, it works, but from a social point of view, we shouldn’t encourage it.

How much does increasing college-going rates matter to our economy and society?

Caplan: College attendance, in my view, is usually a drain on our economy and society. Encouraging talented people to spend many years in wasteful status contests deprives the economy of millions of man-years of output. If this were really an “investment,” of course, it might be worth it. But I see little connection between the skills that students acquire in college and the skills they’ll need later in life.

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