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Are Students Wasting Their Time Getting a College Degree?

The Case Against Caplan's Thesis: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money

What is the value of a college education? Is it largely a waste of time as George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan contends? Or, is there more to getting a college education than increasing one’s earnings potential during their lifetime? Caplan contends the subject matters taught in college are soon forgotten and if little value. He believes the main value of a college education is the signaling to potential employers that graduates have gained the skills necessary to be successful in the workplace.

What Caplan fails to see is our technologically-driven economy depends on well-educated students, especially in STEM subject matter – science, technology, engineering and math. We have a shortage of trained American students in these fields so U.S. businesses hire thousands of young people every year from outside the country to fill these slots. Does Caplan really believe we should ignore the need for college educated students in these fields and promote a more vocational-oriented education? It seems so from his book, The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money.

Every year, U.S. employers seeking highly skilled foreign professionals submit their petitions on the first business day in April for the pool of H-1B visa numbers for which U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services controls the allocation. With a statutory limit of 65,000 visa numbers available for new hires largely in STEM fields—and 20,000 additional visa numbers for foreign professionals who graduate with a Master’s or Doctorate from a U.S. university—in recent years demand for H-1B visa numbers has outstripped the supply and the cap has been reached quickly. 

Caplan argues a college education is not worth the paper the degree is written on. This is difficult to understand from an economics professor who simply needs to do a cost-benefit analysis to see why a college degree is, in fact, a worthwhile commitment to enhancing one’s ability to fulfill their highest need – self-actualization. Caplan should bone up on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a well-respected depiction of how we satisfy our needs through behavioral actions and the choices we make in life.

Maslow wanted to understand what motivates people. He believed that people possess a set of motivation systems unrelated to rewards or unconscious desires. Maslow posited that everything we do is derived from and revolves around a certain need we are seeking to satisfy. One must satisfy lower level needs before moving on to meet higher level growth needs. The lowest level of needs is associated with physiological needs that sustain us and provide a foundation for other needs (i.e., food, water, clothing, shelter and employment). We move on to the need for a sense of being loved and belongingness, and then to building our self-esteem and sense of worth. Once this is accomplished, we can achieve our highest need of satisfying our inner potential, morality, and creativity.  Maslow

Every person is capable and has the desire to move up the hierarchy toward a level of self-actualization. This does not always occur because one’s progress is disrupted by failure to meet lower level needs. Maslow noted only one in a hundred-people become fully self-actualized because our society rewards motivation primarily based on esteem, love and other social needs.

Frankly, I don’t see how a person can climb all the way up Maslow’s Hierarchy without a college education. It takes hard work, dedication to a cause, the belief in one’s own capabilities, and a strong work ethic built on ethical values of honesty, trustworthiness, respect for others, personal responsibility and accountability. I supposed it’s possible to gain such values through a trades-oriented education, but it seems to me if a college education is to do what it is supposed to do then achieving one’s highest potential in life is aided by the degree and, more important, the socialization gained through interaction with others from diverse cultures during one’s college years.

Perhaps the problem is that higher education needs to be restructured and administrators, faculty and staff need to re-dedicate themselves to the cause. During my 30+ years of teaching college students I have notice an increased ambivalence on the part of faculty driven, I believe, by the excessive emphasis on research and publications for tenure and promotion and not enough on teaching – making a difference in the lives of students, serving as role models, instilling a work ethic, and incorporating a ‘learn by doing’ methodology in education.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on January 31, 2018. Dr. Mintz is a Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He blogs about workplace ethics issues and answers confidential questions. Visit his website to find out more about his services and sign up for his newsletter.