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Noah Smith

Value of Education Isn't Measured Only by Earnings

Schooling provides credentials that lead to higher paying jobs. It also makes us better as human beings.
It's more than a degree.

It's more than a degree.

Photographer: Ralph Crane/LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan continues to grab the occasional headline with his thesis that formal education is mostly wasted time and money. Caplan’s book, “The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money,” has been highly controversial.  I have taken issue with his premise that people pay for college in order to  “signal” to other people, including employers, and that it explains why it raises people’s pay (the actual signaling model of education postulated by economists is very different from the sort of wasteful credentialism that Caplan postulates). But Caplan’s more general case doesn’t hinge crucially on the particulars of that theoretical model -- it’s a far-ranging indictment of the education system on a wide range of grounds.

Rebutting, or even properly addressing, Caplan’s overall thesis would require an equally voluminous book. Education is a complex, difficult issue, for a number of reasons. First, education is really a bundle of many different services. Elementary schools act as day-care centers that allow parents to enter the workforce. Schools teach specific skills like reading and math, but also less easily quantifiable ones like critical thinking, attention and focus, and time management. Schools are a group environment where kids can become socialized. Compulsory education keeps potentially troublesome teenagers off of the streets and out of mischief. When you buy a pizza, you’re getting something very simple and easily understood, but when you get an education, you’re getting a hodge-podge of many things. To evaluate whether education is really worth the price, all of these must be identified and calculated.