The $60K Rafting Guide
By David Henderson
Like the students in Jared Lucas’s class, I have been thinking a lot about Bryan Caplan’s insights on schooling in The Case Against Education. I got to about page 120 and then my plane landed, but I read it the way I read every book I write a review on: every page and every footnote.
And my reaction to it is similar to, though less extreme than, the way Robert E. Lucas thinks about economic growth:
Is there some action a government of India could take that would lead the Indian economy to grow like Indonesia’s or Egypt’s? If so, what, exactly? If not, what is it about the “nature of India” that makes it so? The consequences for human welfare involved in questions like these are simply staggering: Once one starts to think about them, it is hard to think about anything else. (Lucas 1988, p. 5; italics in original)
Once I’ve started thinking about Bryan’s insights, I realize that they explain so much: why people go to school despite forgetting almost everything they learn and why they celebrate when a professor cancels a class they’ve paid for, to name two.
Bryan’s book also caused me to look back on various interactions I’ve had with young people deciding whether to go to college. One such incident comes to mind.
For about 2 decades, my daughter and I took a father/daughter trip every summer. When she was in her mid-teens, the trip we usually took was to go rafting on the American River in California. One particular time in the late 1990s we got talking to the rafting guide, who had just finished high school and was planning to go on to college. He told me that someone from the Silicon Valley had been a customer a week earlier and had been so impressed by him that he asked the young man about his computer skills. Whatever the 18-year old answered must have worked because the Silicon Valley guy told him that if he scrapped his plans for college, he could work at the man’s firm in Silicon Valley for $60K a year.
The young man told me he found it tempting and that, because I was a college professor, he would value my advice. I said “Take the job. Most people go to college to get a job like that and you can go directly to the job and can skip 4 years of living like an undergrad and piling up debt.”
One other customer in the raft, a woman about my age, piped up, “I disagree. Go to college and get the degree and you’ll have something to fall back on.”
I responded, “If he gets the job and it works out, his income could rise by 50% over 5 years and he could save a lot of money. Then if he loses the job and can’t find another one, he can ‘fall back’ on going to college.”
I don’t know what the young man did.
My friend David Seltzer shared a more extreme story that makes the same point. This one is about the NBA and the NCAA:
[Name deleted] is upset with the one and done policy the NCAA has allowed for basketball players. His argument: those players are there for an EDUCATION. His raised voice, not mine. My point, if a degreed education raises one’s earnings over a working life, then one-and-done sends a player to the NBA with a first year salary of $900k. If he delays, his opportunity cost is at least the first year and the risk of injury. I suspect the player will barely recover the foregone earnings. I pointed out that Gates and Zuckerberg were two-and-done at Harvard, no less, and Jobs left Reed College after six months. Finally, I don’t know of any college grads coming out of “top tier” universities whose starting salaries approach 900k.