The questionable efficacy of additional years of education?

First let me explicitly say that what I am arguing here is not that education is not important or necessary in today’s world, nor would anyone (with a normally functioning brain) try to argue that. The point really is that after a student spends a few years learning basic subjects and masters basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills, the practical and intellectual returns on further years of education diminish. In other words a person’s intellect and critical thinking skills will plateau no matter how many more classes you sit in. Like athletic ability there is only a small percent of the population that is genuinely gifted academically.

When it comes to education I have come to the conclusion that we do not look at this issue in a rational or logical way but more so at a “feel good” level. Education for many has become so sacrosanct that to question what we are doing would amount to religious heresy! I have no doubt that if the education establishment had its way the public would be taxed to fund “education” from birth to a PhD. Surely a person with a PhD. in Early Childhood Education be more effective in changing diapers that one without such a degree? Would not someone with a PhD. in Decomposition Chemistry and Mechanical Engineering be a more effective sanitation worker than one without? One can rationalize the “need” for any level of education. But what has been the actual results of our continued spending on education throughout the years:

This graph explains what is happening.

Education’s Diminishing Returns

I think this graph says it all. In other words, sure we can just keep pumping money into this system and still see no demonstrable change, and maybe for some it will “feel” good and of course some politician will get to brag about this increased spending. Here is the link:

We have been brainwashed to believe that many jobs now “require” a college degree, which I would hope that many of us here know that is bunch of ■■■■■■■■■ George Leef makes the following observation:

“Our higher education establishment has convinced many people that the key to the state’s success lies with the UNC system. UNC-Chapel Hill’s Chancellor James Moeser recently said, “If knowledge is the capital of our new economy, research universities are the sources of that capital and will be at the center of thriving economies.” He’d have us believe that our economy would be running short of its fuel — knowledge — if it weren’t for UNC and similar institutions.

Moeser wants people to equate “knowledge” and “learning” with the kind of formal education he represents. But in his book The Joy of Freedom, economist David Henderson calls this “one of the biggest snow jobs.” He writes that “Schools don’t have a monopoly on learning: They don’t even have a large market share.” His point is that people have a strong incentive to learn what they really need to, and often do most effectively outside of formal education.”

Let’s not forget that some of our greatest companies were created by college dropouts. Furthermore, who here learned more about how to do your particular job? Was it by sitting in classrooms listening to lectures or was it from an experienced coworker guiding you through the day to day tasks? The author concludes:

“Thanks to state and federal subsidies, tremendous numbers of students now go to college, but many have little or no real interest in academic pursuits. What benefit they might get from post-high school studies comes packaged along with lots of dubious courses to constitute a “degree.” The cost of all that is enormous, but it isn’t buying more learning, just more “education.” For many students, college is a high-priced substitute for learning they would have done anyway.”

What about critical thinking skills? Surely after sitting through four years of coursework all of our college graduates are now highly seasoned academic scholars and genuine polymaths. Well not according to the actual facts:

“Whether recent grads are up to standard or not, there’s evidence that the college experience does not do enough to improve those skills, and not a lot of evidence that it does. In “Higher Ed’s Biggest Gamble,” John Schlueter takes this case even further, questioning whether the college experience can even in principle build those skills.”

Likely one of the most outspoken critics of our higher education system is Bryan Caplan, who in his book, The Case Against Education, notes that as well regarding the lack of increased critical thinking skills after four years of college. Here is a brief video from Caplan:

There are plenty more discussions from Caplan about this on the internet that are more thorough. Regarding his book here is a small excerpt from a review on it:

“Caplan is an iconoclast but a data-driven one, and that’s part of what makes him unusual and special. And, to be sure, I myself am prone to the biases Caplan notes. Yet, as I read The Case Against Education , I couldn’t find many holes to poke in the argument. The book blends data and observation / anecdote well, and it also fits disturbingly well with my own teaching experiences. For example, Caplan notes that students find school boring and stultifying: “Despite teachers’ best efforts, most youths find high culture boring—and few change their minds in adulthood.”……

“Many of you will not like The Case Against Education too because it is thorough. Caplan goes through his arguments, then many rebuttals, then rebuttals to the rebuttals. If you want a book that only goes one or two layers deep, this is the wrong book for you and you should stick to the Internet.”

Our current approach to education is so cookie-cutter with the idealistic and archaic notion that all students should be forcefully molded into well rounded scholars trying to cram 5-7 different subjects into their brains. A more rational approach to higher education would be one that is more career oriented and focuses on each students interests and abilities instead of the current time consuming, expensive and wasteful system we have.

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I’m unclear on something. You want a more focused approach based on student interests, but I don’t see how universities aren’t doing that. There are core courses students take, but t then they choose what area they want to focus on. I’m an accountant at a major university, and we have 19 different colleges where students can get accepted to after their basic courses. And in those there are literally hundreds of more specific programs. So I’m not sure what you want.

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My first point would be that there is no empirical evidence to suggest the current practice of 4 years of high school and 4 years of college is in any way some logical or necessary standard to follow. Bryan Caplan (one of the authors I cited) makes an empirical case why it’s largely a waste of time. As a former high school educator I completely concur with his assessment. We have this idea in our society that one can fight and die for the country at 18 years old but is not ready to work in a so-called white collar job at that age.

If I were to design a more effective system it would start at the high school years. High school does not need to be four years of largely useless general education content but should be more of a preparation for life outside of school.

Regarding college I personally view the general education requirements as largely a complete waste of time and money as Caplan details. A more effective system would be one in which would involve specifically career oriented programs that make more use of relationships with businesses to get students actual job related skills and training.

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I agree that our education system in general is outmoded and inefficient in numerous aspects.

I agree we compulsively over-educate a significant proportion of our society to a degree that neither benefits the individual nor society.

I home schooled my children. They set their education agendas and pace and tailored their education as they saw fit. All three ultimately went to college, both my boys receiving Master of Arts degrees, my daughter a Doctor of Philosophy. But a Ph.D. is kind of necessary to becoming a researcher. :smile: And both my sons are on career paths where advanced degrees are actually beneficial.

That is NOT the case in many situations.

While I don’t recommend dropping out of high school, numerous high school drop outs have done very well for themselves.

I do think this country can do a much better job of tailoring education to individual needs than what it currently does.

We get it. You have posted many posts/threads disparaging education. Some problems with your post:

  1. your graph is not inflation-adjusted and should be per capita. Of course the cost of education is going to increase over time. Also, why does the graph stop at 2003?

  2. Education Stormfront is a blog. He’s entitled to his opinion.

  3. The James G Martin Center for Academic Renewal appears to be Koch-funded. That doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of consideration. It does mean that it’s “point of view” has a particular bent.

  4. Inside higher ed is a news aggregator.

  5. Read a few reviews of Bryan Caplan’s book – they vary widely.


Perhaps he or his source may not be entirely correct, but the topic is certainly valid and relevant. We do over educate or needlessly educate in this country.

Yes, some people, (myself and my children for example) benefited/can benefit from a traditional education. But that is NOT true for many people, who would be far more better served with a targeted and narrowly tailored education.

Obviously, opinions on the details will vary widely, but the generality of the posts above are clearly valid. We can do MUCH better in this country in providing education.

College is not about your first 10 jobs. It’s about your last 5. If you are an achiever, eventually you are going to hit the ceiling. A college degree moves that ceiling up.

And it’s easier while you’re young.


I disagree that “the posts above are clearly valid.” They represent opinions. The debate about how to best provide education is ongoing, as it should be.

I said that the topic is valid, NOT the posts.

Big difference.

I’ll be damned. :clap:

Good post.

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Me and The Kid had conversations. Did a lot of thinking on it. Ran into the ceiling once.

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yep, you did. I misread.

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I’ve hit one or two as well. The only way through was more learning. I am learning an entirely new profession right this minute in fact. My body will no longer cooperate at my current vocation.

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The x-axis on the graph indicates “Constant 2008 Dollars” so it would seem that is inflation adjusted. I have absolutely no doubt we are spending more per student - inflation adjusted - than we did in the past. Regarding the y-axis you could extrapolate out to 2006. I would assume the data was only to a certain date.

That’s odd. The graph doesn’t even go to 2008.

It’s easy to argue that you have “no doubt” about something that you haven’t given evidence for.

I have no doubt as a resident of NJ that the amount we are spending on education has significantly outpaced inflation by assessing the substantial increases in property taxes over time. In NJ education accounts for 60-70% or even more of property tax expenditures. The graph is certainly based upon the data from the time period formulated which is always going to be a laggard as more recent data was likely not available. Do I really need to explain this?

You couldn’t get any data newer than 2003? That’s unfortunate.

Regarding the conclusions reached by the author’s presented, can you provide any empirical evidence to prove otherwise? Also I can attest to this from personal experience as one who worked in the profession and knowing many others in the profession as well.