AMANDA MUCCIO ’18
Why,” Professor Bry- an Caplan asked a crowded McCook auditorium, “do you bother to enroll or pay tuition at Trinity?”
Think about it: If an individual was interested in obtaining knowledge, he or she could simply livein the Hartford area and ask a professor to sit inon the class. If a person actually did this, Caplan added, it would be a professor’s dream – it would mean the individual was genuinely curious about the course material. Why isn’t this a frequent request? Because no one would commit that amount of time or energy without the hope of be- ing presented the coveted Trinity College degree. This is the core argument that Caplan raises in his new book, What’s Wrong with Education?
Caplan argues that the reason that the value of a college education isso high is not because a person is necessarily walking away with a heightened understanding of the world or a greater skill set. Instead, he asserts, young people and their families pay top dollar for their education because of“signaling.” The great weight of a Bachelor’s degree, Caplan contends, is just that: the ability to“show off” your IQ, work ethic, and conformity to potential employers. Frankly, Caplan says, in today’s economy student need to – it would be disingenuous to deny that a reason (if not the main reason) students are at Trinity is because the diploma matters. If they are honest with them- selves, it is clear that signaling is a huge part of the U.S. education system.
It doesn’t make it right, though, says Caplan, that students feel that college is the only worthwhile route. He says it’s a strange phenomenon because almost none of what students learn inschoolis applicable to a job. Certainly, some schooling is necessary and is shown to raise productivity, but Caplan says that the “ubiquity of useless education”is disconcerting. It’s a big puzzle he’s struggled to understand since he was five years old: Why is it that most of what students learn in college have no direct bearing on future professions? And why do employers pay a large premium to students who have learned about subjects completely unrelated to their work? In reality, Caplan says, the market rewards education very well – so well that it creates negative externalities.
In a more controversial part of his lecture, Caplan stated that 80%of education is signaling, or a lot of“hoop-jumping” just to show off. From this point, he draws a powerful conclusion: Society as a whole loses because of the selfish individual(s) who receive a college degree. According to Caplan, higher education can be personally beneficial, yet socially wasteful. His recommendation? To shrink the educational sector in the United States (although reform is dif cult).
Caplan’s speech prompted the response of Columbia University Professor of Economics and International Affairs Miguel Urquiola. Uriquiola effectively defended the current education system, suggesting that both policy makers and students may wish to ignore the book’s prescriptions. He presented more “realistic models” that sought to diminish Caplan’s 80% signaling statistic. Uriquiola capitalized on two points. One, that creating a ranking of people centered around the degree they have obtained makes the economy more productive any way, and two, that the case against education is subtle.
Urquiola’s argument centered around the importance of human capital and school identity. Even if, Urquiola argued, it’s true that school curricula are weak, and students only marginally use information learned in the classroom, attending college earns students more than just sheepskin. Attendance reflects a club, a network that students are now a part of. And networks, Urquiola says, rather than ability, are the key to top jobs in the United States. This should resonate with every Trinity student, because the College boasts its alumni relations and connections. This holds true for most U.S. colleges and universities, but Urquiola noted that students benefit the most from the networks of elite schools. That’s why young people work so hard to get into top schools- primarily to be a part of an elite network for life, and then for the diploma (the high-quality education added bonus).
Urquiola’s proposition? To let our market “shake it out.”To change the entire system, he says, is incorrect. While Urquiola said that Caplan’s book strikes him as “heavy handed,”he also admitted that it echoes a long tradition in the Unit- ed States. At the end of the symposium, Urquiola reconciled with much of Caplan’s argument, saying that itis right to think of and criticize what schools and colleges do.
Now of course, the audience was left to consider: “What is the bal- ance between human capital and signaling?”