How Schooling is Like Garbage Collection
By Bryan Caplan
Schooling has a high private financial return. But most people don’t finish college; many don’t even finish high school. Lots of economists are baffled by these facts, and spin complex theories to explain them.
At the same time, however, I’ve never heard an economist grapple with a parallel puzzle: Garbage collection has a high private financial return. But most people don’t even try to be garbage collectors. The explanation for this pattern is all too obvious: The high wages of garbage collectors are a compensating differential for the unpleasantness of the job.
Is this analogy ridiculous? Well, if you’ve always been a good student, it probably seems that way. If you’re an economist – or a blog reader – you probably liked school. I bet that many of you were formerly known as “teacher’s pet.”
My point is that you’re probably an outlier; your introspection about whether “people like school” is not to be trusted. When this happens, it’s very helpful to look at representative surveys. Here’s one I came across from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Fun fact: The most popular reason for dropping out is sheer boredom!
Nearly half (47 percent) said a major reason for dropping out was that classes were not interesting. These young people reported being bored and disengaged from high school. Almost as many (42 percent) spent time with people who were not interested in school.
One big difference between schooling and garbage collection, admittedly, is that most drop-outs say they regret dropping out, but very few people regret not becoming garbage collectors. But I suspect that a lot of this is just social desirability bias: You’re supposed to say that you wish you finished school, but no one expects you to say that you wish you’d become a garbageman. Idly wishing you’d endured a extra year or two of excrutiating boredom is one thing; actually enduring it is another. For the tens of millions of people who really hate school, the extra money just isn’t worth it.