Is college a waste of money?

by Rob Horning

17 May 2007


In their inimitable style, Becker and Posner, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of dry libertarian analysis, take on the question of the value of higher education, having earlier discussed the dubiousness of the U.S. News and World Report school rankings (schools can game the system in response to the more or less arbitrary way they are determined). Posner finds that college is mainly a way for businesses to offload the costs of screening potential applicants to the state and the potential employee.

Colleges and graduate (including professional) schools provide a screening and certifying function. Someone who graduates with good grades from a good college demonstrates intelligence more convincingly than if he simply tells a potential employer that he’s smart; and he also demonstrates a degree of discipline and docility, valuable to employers, that a good performance on an IQ test would not demonstrate. (This is an important point; if all colleges did was separate the smart from the less smart, college would be an inefficient alternative to simple testing.) An apprentice system would be a substitute ... but employers naturally prefer to shift a portion of the cost of screening potential employees to colleges and universities. Because those institutions are supported by taxpayers and alumni as well as by students, employers do not bear the full cost of screening.

Because college performs this screening function regardless of whether what you learn has any relevance to anything—the substance of education is meaningless since its function is primarily to signal how well you can follow directions and work the bureaucracy. So if Posner is right, fights over the canon of what gets taught is essentially an academic parlor game with little ramifications beyond whose ego is assuaged.

Posner also argues that college is privately useful but far from a collective good, as the ceaseless calls from politicians for more college graduates might lead you to believe.

I am skeptical that it should be a national priority, or perhaps any concern at all, to increase the number of people who attend or graduate from college. Presumably the college drop-outs, and the kids who don’t go to college at all, do not expect further education to create benefits commensurate with the cost, including the foregone earnings from starting work earlier. This would be an entirely rational decision for someone who was not particularly intelligent and who did not anticipate network benefits from continued schooling because the students with whom he would associate would not form a valuable network of which he would be a part, either because he could not get into a good school, in the sense of one populated by highly promising students, or because if he did get into a good school the other students in the school would not consider him worth networking with.

He’s perfectly to leave the “not particularly intelligent” to their rational choices—one thing this line of argument illustrates is the difference between intelligence (a socially useful ability) and rationality (mental biofeedback). But it is also pretty harsh, indicative of the Brave New Worldish thinking that inevitably haunts meritocracy, a sense that there is a biological destiny behind one’s place in society and it does little good—is downright irrational—to fight it by, say, trying to get an education.

The marginal students are unlikely to be kids who, with a little more education, would make the kind of contribution to society that a worker is unable to capture in his wage. Nor are these marginal students likely to be educated into an interest in political and societal matters that will make them more conscientious voters or otherwise better citizens.

These marginal types are society’s Epsilons, and we shouldn’t waste money trying to change that even if they don’t have the good sense to accept it.


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