If higher education is mostly a social loss, as Caplan persuasively argues, what is to be done? Caplan thinks that the government should stop subsidizing education. He favors full separation of school and state* That position sounds a little less interesting when you realize that is his default position. He would undoubtedly argue that private charity would be the best way of funding resistance to invading Martian tripods. And even if that didn’t work, it would still be the right way to respond, even as we endured a miserable existence under the Martian yoke and lash.
Other approaches are possible. There are certainly ways of drastically reducing the cost of education, ways that would preserve most or all of its positive effects. As James Miller suggests, we might go to three-year undergraduate degree programs, as in England. The inflation-adjusted real cost of college when I attended was about 40% of what it is today: most of those savings could achieved by simply copying decent colleges of yesteryear. Why do we need lots more administrative and support staff than in 1970? Simple answer: we don’t. Just say no. Why must professors have substantially lower teaching loads than in the days of old? Answer: starving adjuncts.
Caplan would point out that demonstrating conformity is one the prime purposes of getting a B.S. – so taking part in any reform, no matter how beneficial, marks you as one of those loser nonconformists. You couldn’t have a college that made heavy use of massively online courses …. because! Whatever was, is right.
Thus all change is impossible, just as it would be impossible to develop an internet-based jitney system, because of the political power of established cab companies.
One way to get the ball rolling would be official federal acceptance of some moderately unconventional approaches- say if the Feds hired kids with three-year degrees. It is not as if major corporations have systematically examined alternative hiring approaches and found them wanting – it’s more that HR/Personnel knows that they might be fired if they try something new, but won’t be if they do the usual. It’s HR’s conformism, as much as anything.
Suppose the Feds hired kids that had passed certain kinds of competency tests. This could be done on a trial basis: there is no reason to implement every cockeyed idea on a nationwide basis. If it works, it might become general.
In our current system, government does pick and choose, to an extent. Not so much with undergraduates, but quite a bit in graduate school. Research money flows into certain fields and not so much into others, and so graduate schools in engineering and the natural sciences are well funded [grad students get paid], while students in the humanities suffer. For example, someone writing a PhD thesis on the local density of the word “I” in Robinson Crusoe [~ 1/ln x ? ] will probably have to wait tables or turn tricks. We could do more of this. If the Feds refused to support student loans for the dubious ~80% of majors, we would see fewer students make those bad choices. People from wealthy families could still major in gender studies in private colleges – it’s a free country [?] – but that would soon be seen as the educational equivalent of cocaine – Nature’s way of saying that you’ve got more money than brains.
While we’re at it, Caplan points out (correctly) that most people don’t remember much of what they learn in school. But some do: it might be worth doing some quality research on how those people manage to retain a lot. Every man his own memory palace?
* Caplan argues that private-charity based education, along with education paid for by children’s parents is just as effective as a well-run compulsory educational system. But that is not true: contrast the path of education in late-Victorian England vs Wilhelmine Germany. “only a dozen students were reading for a degree in natural sciences at Cambridge in 1872. Germany, meanwhile, had 11 entire universities devoted to science and technology. ” Look on Haber-Bosch, ye mighty, and despair!