Stably Wasteful: Why New Tech Won't Gut Higher Education
By Bryan Caplan
If the human capital model of education were true, educators should be worried. Modern information technology makes it possible to teach skills for a fraction of the traditional cost. If imparting skills were the main function of schooling, higher education will soon, as Arnold suggests, go the way of Borders.
Unfortunately for the world, but fortunately for me, the human capital model is greatly overrated. Education is not primarily about teaching concrete skills. It’s a stably wasteful way to sort people according to their intelligence, conscientiousness, conformity, etc.
So what happens when an innovator claims to have a cheaper, easier substitute for traditional education? The lazy and the weird gravitate to Cheap Easy U like moths to the flame. As a result, employers correctly infer that graduates of Cheap Easy U are sub-par – and Cheap Easy U captures, at best, a niche market. A sustainable business model, perhaps – but no real threat to the Expensive Painful Universities that blanket the land.
If our education system is going to improve, our salvation won’t be low-cost alternatives to what we’ve got. Our salvation will be education budgets so austere that middle class kids can no longer afford to finish four-year degrees – and therefore no longer need four-year degrees to convince employers to give them a chance.
P.S. Two years ago Alex Tabarrok expressed similar hopes/fears about the ability of technology to gut higher education. I replied:
If [you] were right, then videotape would have put college professors out of business thirty years ago!
Then I offered Alex a bet:
I bet at even odds that 10 years from now, the fraction of
American 18-24 year-olds enrolled in traditional four-year colleges
will be no more than 10% (not 10 percentage-points!) lower than it is
As far as I remember, Alex didn’t take the bait. How about you, Arnold?