Practical Guidance for Prudent Students
By Bryan Caplan
The Case Against Education‘s chapter on the selfish return to education runs over sixty pages. Since I suspect that even eager readers may skim all the tables, I end with practical advice in plain English. Note: Nothing in this section hinges on signaling, because signaling reduces education’s social return but not its selfish (or “private”) return.
Practical Guidance for Prudent Students
Teachers hate when students groan, “Can’t you just tell us the answer?” For academics, a short, sweet solution is indecent unless clothed in a thorough explanation. For educational decisions, however, the stakes are so high that I’m willing to be indecent.
But first, a caveat. Since my calculations include non-monetary values, my advice is stronger than it sounds. If I opine, “Type X students shouldn’t go to college,” I’m not saying that “Type X students shouldn’t go to college unless they really like school.” I’m saying “Type X students shouldn’t go to college even if they do really like school.” Buying a beach house on the verge of collapse is ill-advised, even if you love the ocean and can’t afford better.
Broad-stroke advice rubs many people the wrong way. The world is full of chance, and every individual is unique. Still, using these banal facts to avoid giving definite counsel is a cop-out. Although no strategy is foolproof, and every generalization has exceptions, some educational strategies really are better than others. Here they are.
Go to high school unless you’re a terrible student. High school is a good deal for students of almost every description. On the first day of high school, Excellent, Good, Fair, and even Poor Students can count on a Degree Return of at least 5%. Since Poor Students by definition fit the profile of the typical dropout, the decision to drop out is typically a mistake. The key insight: Uncredentialed, inexperienced, full-time workers earn low salaries, so teens can afford to bet on their own academic success even if they usually fail.
The high school payoff remains healthy even in bleak scenarios. While school is less fruitful for confirmed bachelors, Poor Students, and people who hate sitting in class, a male Poor Student who rules out marriage and hates school has a Degree Return of 4%. Should anyone skip high school in favor of a low-skilled job? Yes. Almost a quarter of us are worse than Poor Students. If you’re in the bottom 10-15% of the academic pecking order, your graduation odds are so slim that you should quit school and start work. And whatever you do, don’t bother with a GED. It may sound like a
good middle way, but in practice, its main function is to tell employers, “I have the brains but not the grit to finish high school.”
Go to college only if you’re a strong student or special case. College is a a good deal for Excellent and Good Students who follow two simple rules. First, pick a “real” major. STEM is obviously “real”; so are economics, business, and even political science. Second, go to a respected public school. It probably won’t charge list price, and even if it does, you usually get your money’s worth. If you stray far from these rules, you’re likely to get burned. Even Excellent Students should think twice before paying list price for private school or pursuing a fine arts degree. Does Gothic architecture or a career in the arts really mean the world to you?
For weaker students, college is normally a bad deal. If you’re a Fair Student, go only if you’re a special case. Will you major in something like engineering? Did an elite school miraculously offer you a cushy scholarship? Are you a women who firmly plans to marry? Then despite your spotty academic record, college may be for you. Otherwise, skip college and get a job. Poor Students,
finally, should not go to college, period. Filling their heads with hope because a Nobelist once got a bad grade is irresponsible. Statistically speaking, the “easy” majors Poor Students have a prayer of surviving aren’t worth the seven odd years they need to finish.
Don’t get a master degree unless the stars align. On the day they start a master’s degree, even Excellent Students can expect a lousy Degree Return of 2.6%. You should enroll, then, only if you have a great reason – or several good reasons – to believe you’ll beat the odds.
For starters, your academic ability needs to be better than Excellent. Failure in graduate programs is so prevalent that only the top 5-10% of the population can confidently expect to cross the finish line. Field also matters enormously. While data on graduate earnings by subject are scarce, there can be little doubt that engineering, computer science, and economics have far higher returns than fine arts, education, and anthropology. The latter degrees only make sense if compared to your fellow masters students, you’re a gushing fan of your subject. For women, finally, marital plans are also crucial. As long as she’s an Excellent Student, the master’s is very good deal for the woman who marries, but a lousy deal for the woman who stays single.
My counsel rubs many the wrong way. Some dismiss it as “elitist,” “philistine,” or “sexist.” The correct label is candid. It’s not my fault the rewards of education hinge on graduation. It’s not my fault graduation hinges on past academic performance. It’s not my fault fine arts degrees pay so poorly. It’s not my fault married women profit far more from education than single women. I am only a messenger. My job is to honestly report the facts, especially unwelcome facts of great practical importance.
The most common visceral reaction to my advice, however, is to accuse me of hypocrisy. “Sure, he advises other people’s kids to think twice before they go to college. But he’d never say that to his own kids.” They don’t know me. I advise my kids the same way I advise anyone else: Tailoring my message to the student. I learn their academic track record, motivation, intended field of study, gender, marital plans, and so on. Then I tell them how various educational paths typically pan out for people who fit their profile. This is no reason to shoot the messenger – or the messenger’s children. My first two sons are outstanding students interested in economics, so of course I’ll urge college. My younger two have yet to start school, so the jury is still out. If either turns out to be a C student, I will gently but emphatically advise them to find a job right after high school.
Finally, none of my recommendations assumes that human beings base their educational decisions on careful calculations of the return to education. Quite the opposite. If human beings based their educational decisions on careful calculations of the return to education, they wouldn’t need my advice because they’d already be following it! My assumption, rather, is that our educational decisions are deeply corrupted by ignorance, inexperience, conformity, and pride. My goal is save readers time, money, and grief by rooting out – or at least curbing – this pervasivecorruption.
Update: Implied urban legend about Einstein’s academic record fixed. Thanks!