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The Daily Reckoning

How higher education is leading us astray

Despite a skyrocketing price tag, higher education is not benefiting our young people any more than when it was affordable

By Guest blogger / October 31, 2011

In this file photo, Wichita State graduates walk to the graduation ceremony for the college of liberal arts in Wichita, Kan. For most Kansas college students, the road to a degree takes longer than four years. Bonner argues that higher education is more cost than it's worth in its current state.

The Wichita Eagle/AP/File

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When the financial crisis of 2008 hit, we saw how state-managed capitalism works. Favored companies are allowed to make as much money as they can. But they are protected from going broke.

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Certain firms are deemed “too big to fail,” by virtue of the key role they play in the economy, or at least by the role they play in a politician’s plans for re-election or future employment. But state-managed capitalism is very different from the real thing. It is capitalism in a degenerate form.

Real capitalism progresses in fits and starts, described by Josef Schumpeter as “creative destruction.” It is like a jungle…not like a zoo. It cannot be managed. You cannot take out the predators or feed selected species without upsetting the balance of nature. Take out the destruction, and you block the creative process too.

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, most real wealth has come from real capitalism. Not from “playing the market.” Not from getting a good job. Not by trying to cadge favors from the government.

So, what is real capitalism? It is what we’ve seen in the computer/Internet industry over the last 20 years. This was a new industry. It had not yet been tamed by the government. Regulations were few. There were no large, entrenched companies to block start-ups. There were no lobbyists to curry favor from the politicians. There were no subsidies…and no barriers. It was young, dynamic, chaotic…and very prone to blow-ups.

The whole industry blew up in January 2000. Mistakes were not bailed out. They were corrected. Money moved from weak hands to strong ones. Many companies failed. The companies that survived, and prospered…went on to glory. Amazon. Google. Microsoft. Apple.

And who was behind these new companies? College drop-outs, computer nerds, products of teenage mothers and broken marriages. They did not enter the ranks of existing technology companies, work their way up to senior management and then create new product lines. It is almost as if they succeeded not because of advanced American capitalism, but in spite of it. They created an entirely new industry…with new companies nobody had ever heard of. And then, they destroyed some of the biggest businesses in America.

Typically, in a correction, asset prices fall and unemployment goes up. Misallocated resources — including labor — needs to be re-priced and put back to work. But when markets are not allowed to work the bid and ask spread in the labor market can stay out of whack for years. Joblessness becomes a structural problem, not a cyclical problem. People do not find new jobs. Old businesses are not swept away and new businesses do not start up.

A zoo economy keeps the old animals alive as long as possible.

Let’s look at education. Now, there’s an industry — we can all agree — that adds value. You could look at it as a charitable activity. Or as a profit-making business. Either way, education has to be a plus for the individual and for the society, right?

Wrong on both points. Education is only a benefit when freely floating prices are allowed to determine what it is worth. First, let us look at the whole industry. Since the 1960s spending on education, in raw terms, in per capita terms, in terms adjusted for inflation, has soared. From the 1930s, when the first careful records were compiled, to the 1990s, real spending on education multiplied 5 times per student. It more than doubled from the ’60s.

Did this increase in spending do any good? Not on the available evidence. Test scores — measuring achievement — have not budged in 40 years. In other words, the additional investment over the last 40 years has been wasted. We might as well have thrown the money down a well.

But while tests of achievement have not moved…the tests of potential achievement have improved. For whatever reason, IQ tests and SAT tests show young people are getting smarter…or better able to take the tests. This may seem like good news. But not when it is set alongside the performance tests. What we see is that the investment in education over the last 4 decades has actually had a negative return. The raw material was better able to learn. But the investment in the teaching industry produced less in the way of actual learning.

Today, the US stands out for its educational spending, as it does for the bombs it makes and the drugs it distributes — it is on the top of the heap, by a wide margin. Spending per school aged child in the US is about $8,000 per year. In Japan, it is half that. France is in-between with about $6,000 spent per child per year.

Which country has the best scores? The one that spends the least — Japan. On math tests, Americans score 474 (out of 600). The French do a little better at 495. And the Japanese get a score of 523.

Science, the same thing. US students get an average score of 489. Japanese students are at 531.

There is nothing very surprising about these figures. Nearly thirty years ago, American researchers found that there was no connection between spending and educational results. They just looked at different school districts in the US. Spending was not correlated with results, they concluded.

And yet, studies continue to show that people with more education do better in life. We doubt these studies have much validity, at least as interpreted. It is surely true that people with a lot of education have lower unemployment levels and higher incomes, statistically, than those with little formal schooling. But we have no way of knowing whether any individual student would have been better staying in school…or dropping out like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.

But we will take a guess: the typical young person would be better off getting out in to the real world and learning as much as possible from working, than he would by staying in school. After all, that’s how almost all the world’s great geniuses, inventors, scholars, and entrepreneurs learned. It has only been in the last 100 years that public education has been ubiquitous…and only in the last half a century that ordinary people felt they should go to college. But as more people went to college, the less dynamic…less creative…and less productive the US economy became.

Our colleague, Gary Gibson puts it this way:

College is not necessary for most people. It never was. In fact, the preoccupation with college has left America bereft of its former ability to create wealth.

An unhealthy cultural myth has flourished that says everyone must go to college and get an advanced degree, even if it’s something for which there is virtually zero market demand. Meanwhile, below-market interest rates and government-backed loans have lured a couple generations of Americans down the road to higher education.

Further, the kind of education colleges provide — indeed, all of American schooling from kindergarten onward — doesn’t produce innovators, entrepreneurs and job creators.

In a recent article for The New York Times titled “Will Dropouts Save America?” Michael Ellsberg writes:

  • “American academia is good at producing writers, literary critics and historians. It is also good at producing professionals with degrees. But we don’t have a shortage of lawyers and professors. America has a shortage of job creators. And the people who create jobs aren’t traditional professionals, but startup entrepreneurs.
  • “No business in America — and therefore, no job creation — happens without someone buying something.”

Wealth is only created when value is added (You didn’t think it was when money was printed, did you?) The Austrian school of thought reminds us that value is subjective. People, ultimately, buy what’s worth buying to them with the money they’ve earned.

We cannot put too fine a point on this. It doesn’t matter what the seller thinks the item is worth. It doesn’t matter how much time, energy and material went into making the product or service. You can waste a lot of time, energy and material producing something no one will want to buy. The buyer determines the ultimate value…and whether he will part with his money for it.

There can be misallocations of resources. And when the central bank and government get involved, these allocations can grow very large and go on for a very long time before violently correcting.

So it is that, increasingly over the past couple of generations, there has been a gross misallocation of time and resources into higher education, aided and abetted by the central bank and the federal government.