Some economists [like Bryan Caplan] are now arguing that the benefits of college are almost entirely signaling – showing that you can learn and how much crap you can swallow – rather than conferring knowledge that makes you better at doing something people would pay you for. Ideally, something genuinely useful.
This cannot be entirely true, at least if you consider education in the broadest sense. Once upon a time nobody knew how to build a decent steam engine. After James Watt developed one, other people learned about it at some point in their lives – maybe not in college, but somewhere. Acquiring that knowledge increased their human capital.
But it’s mostly true. If you look at college majors, it is easy to see most college instruction is not very useful. 21% business majors, 10% social sciences and history, 7% educational majors, 6% psych majors, 5% in visual and performing arts, 5% in “communication, journalism, and related programs”, 3% English and literature – well over half at first cut. When I looked at a more detailed breakdown, I had a hard time arguing that the useful fraction was as high as 20%. Even when someone studies a subject that is potentially useful, there’s a significant probability that they’ll end up doing something entirely different. And then there’s forgetting – I don’t think most people retain much of what they studied in school, unless they use it in their work or happen to find a subject fascinating.