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March 12, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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The Case Against Education

Despite New Zealand public spending on tertiary education as a percentage of GDP being well above the OECD average, I have only ever heard calls to spend more.

We are told that more education is the path to wealth and prosperity, and only the short sighted would disagree. There is no doubt that the educated succeed in the modern economy, but sometimes I can’t help but think much of that public money is being poured down the drain in the name of nonexistent benefits to society. Let me explain.

One thing that is hard to admit but obvious when you think about it is that much of what you learn at school is utterly useless in real life. Do you use the second language you aced to get NCEA credits? If so, will you remember how to in five years time? What about the Shakespeare texts, poetry, geography, history and calculus, how much of that can you recall, let alone put to good use? For most readers the answer will be very little: we absorb information like sponges to pass tests and then wilfully forget. As a law student one thing that I often hear from those practising law is how little they use any legal knowledge gained at law school.

One popular theory is that this doesn’t matter, education is really the mental equivalent of going to the gym, it teaches us ‘how to think’. This sounds intuitive but the evidence says otherwise. The Collegiate Learning Assessment—an American study—compares skills such as critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing of students before, during and after university attendance. It finds only very modest gains in all skills. A whole academic field called ‘Transfer of Learning’ exists to study the dependence of performance on prior experience and it generally shows little evidence of being able to apply skills learned in one specific subject to others. Evidence also shows that whilst university can temporarily boost intelligence indicators such as IQ, there is a ‘fade out’ effect which totally eliminates any gains after a couple of years.

But if this is true, why do graduates earn more on average than non graduates? Doesn’t this fact alone prove that university is making us smarter and more productive? No, and there are explanations as to why. The first is that there is an ‘ability bias’ within those who choose to attend university: they could earn more anyway because they are naturally more intelligent and hard working, but choose to attend university for the student lifestyle, the enjoyment of learning and the social pressure to go. Backing this up are studies showing that by simply controlling for IQ, the college wage premium drops by up to 40%.

Another is that by studying we are ‘signalling’ our pre-existing traits to employers: traits such as intelligence, conformity and contentiousness. According to the signalling theory what really matters is not the learning but the qualification. Signalling theory explains a lot of typical student incentives and behaviour. Think about why it might be that students celebrate, rather than complain, when a class is cancelled. The university is basically taking away a service from us without a refund, shouldn’t we be upset? But this also means there is less material to learn, so we can get the same qualification with less effort. The problem from society’s perspective is that, while signalling is useful for employers and benefits the individuals who can send the signal, it’s not worth anywhere near the billions we invest in the name of building human capital. Readers interested in learning more should follow American economist Bryan Caplan.

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