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Noah Smith

College Isn't a Waste of Time

Higher ed does more than reassure prospective employers; it teaches skills used for a lifetime.
Changed for good.

Changed for good.

Photographer: Jared Soares/The Washington Post/Getty Images

In a recent Atlantic article, George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan declares that college is, mostly, a waste of time. Caplan’s claim is sure to appeal to those who feel that their own higher education was wasted, or who dislike colleges because of liberal campus politics. But his arguments against college are deeply flawed, and the country would be well-advised to take them with a shot of skepticism.

Caplan asserts that much of the value of a college education comes not from skills and knowledge, but from something economists call signaling. Suppose employers want to hire smart, hard-working, conscientious employees, but they can’t tell which employees fit the bill. They might demand that any employee complete some arduous series of tasks simply to prove that they have the requisite traits. People who aren’t smart, hard-working and conscientious enough won’t bother to go through with the trial, allowing employers to separate the good workers from the bad. Caplan believes that college is mostly this kind of task -- an ordeal that young people go through just to demonstrate their worth.