The Atlantic
College Graduation Career Job Image Credit: The Atlantic
College Graduation Career Job Image Credit: The Atlantic

What's College Good For?

College students learn little, and most forget what they do learn with shocking speed. So why are we pushing ever more people into higher education?

Bryan Caplan

I have been in school  for more than 40 years. First preschool, kindergarten, elementary school, junior high, and high school. Then a bachelor’s degree at UC Berkeley, followed by a doctoral program at Princeton. The next step was what you could call my first “real” job—as an economics professor at George Mason University.

Thanks to tenure, I have a dream job for life. Personally, I have no reason to lash out at our system of higher education. Yet a lifetime of experience, plus a quarter century of reading and re†ection, has convinced me that it is a big waste of time and money. When politicians vow to send more Americans to college, I can’t help gasping, “Why? You want us to waste even more?”

How, you may ask, can anyone call higher education wasteful in an age when its Žnan cial payo‘ is greater than ever? The earnings premium for college graduates has rocketed to 73 percent— that is, those with a bachelor’s degree earn, on average, 73 percent more than those who have only a high-school diploma, up from about 50 percent in the late 1970s. The key issue, however, isn’t whether college pays, but why. The simple, popular answer is that schools teach students useful job skills. But this dodges puzzling questions.

First and foremost: From kindergarten on, students spend thousands of hours studying subjects irrelevant to the modern labor market. Why do Englis


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