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Publisher's Summary

Why we need to stop wasting public funds on education

Despite being immensely popular - and immensely lucrative - education is grossly overrated. In this explosive book, Bryan Caplan argues that the primary function of education is not to enhance students' skill but to certify their intelligence, work ethic, and conformity - in other words, to signal the qualities of a good employee.

Learn why students hunt for easy A's and casually forget most of what they learn after the final exam, why decades of growing access to education have not resulted in better jobs for the average worker but instead in runaway credential inflation, how employers reward workers for costly schooling they rarely if ever use, and why cutting education spending is the best remedy.

Caplan draws on the latest social science to show how the labor market values grades over knowledge and why the more education your rivals have, the more you need to impress employers. He explains why graduation is our society's top conformity signal and why even the most useless degrees can certify employability. He advocates two major policy responses. The first is educational austerity. Government needs to sharply cut education funding to curb this wasteful rat race. The second is more vocational education, because practical skills are more socially valuable than teaching students how to outshine their peers.

Romantic notions about education being "good for the soul" must yield to careful research and common sense - The Case Against Education points the way.

Cover design by Leslie Flis.

PLEASE NOTE: When you purchase this title, the accompanying reference material will be available in your Library section along with the audio.

©2018 Princeton University Press (P)2018 Audible, Inc.

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  • Steve Iacobbo
  • 28-02-20

Longwinded, possibly worth skimming

The author has identified the problem: our education system, grades K through college, costs too much and often doesn't train students for jobs. Unfortunately, he poses no reasonable solutions but rather laments the fact that no one is listening to him. The statistics quoted are many, but seem too disjoint to be useful. The author talks about the problem of kids being bored in school, but that's exactly how I felt listening to sections of this book (so I skipped a few sections). He does understand that our education system needs to be changed and presents are some ideas that will resonate with most readers but the book, as a whole, is uninspiring.

11 people found this helpful

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  • Brandon B.
  • 17-05-18

Finally, someone says what needs to be said about education

I’ll be upfront about my bias before getting into the review. I already was a disgruntled college graduate and soon-to-be graduate school graduate. I majored in Neuroscience at UCLA and looking back years later, I remember maybe about 5% of what I learned. Moreover, the idea that I had to pay thousands of dollars so some administrators could tell me what classes had to take and then grade me on some exams that were just memorization strikes me as one of the most perverse transactions in the free market.

The online courses rectify much of this. I can pay for education that I want or need and I can demonstrate my understanding or skill acquisition on my terms. It’s a fair transaction.

Unfortunately, hardly any company will take a Coursera “degree” or the like seriously because of the signaling Model that this wonderful book articulates so well. The idea is that while I may be able to find alternative sources of education that may provide a far superior skill learning experience, it doesn’t matter to the labor market. The labor market cares more about the trifecta of your intelligence, work-ethic, and conformity than it does mastery of skills. College is great at certifying this trifecta and that’s largely why college degrees pay; it merely signals the quality of the job candidate.

This book not only describes this signaling Model but proposes some ostensibly draconian maneuvers to counter act the status quo: namely stop government funding of education. We always here cries that education is becoming too expensive and out of reach for poor students, but Caplan wants to drive up the costs even more. The hope is that a high cost college degree will only attract those who will actually benefit from it (without signaling) and hence credentials will become less important for securing a job that otherwise doesn’t need one. This isn’t as crazy as it sounds, although I don’t think it’s the most important contribution of the book. Anyone can get a world class education online these days for free. What’s all the fuss about high cost of college then? Because we all deep inside know it’s not just about “education,” it’s about the diploma you get at the end certifying you went through a bunch of hoops and are a high quality job candidate.

While the proposal of defunding education is almost surely dead on arrival given the political system, a broader awareness and acceptance of signaling in education would hopefully make people think twice about majoring in Scandinavian Studies or perhaps even going to college. Indeed, one of the most important takeaways is that if college is acting as a signal of quality to potential employers, there may be other less costly (in both time and money) ways to signal the same thing. But it remains to be seen how well other signaling packages might scale to the whole country.

In any case, the book was eye opening and a breath of fresh air. I surely hope we see some true education reform in the direction of less credentialism and focus on a fair transaction between the student and educator.

43 people found this helpful

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  • Thomas J. Hind
  • 15-10-18

A radical but important read

Caplan's argument, although seemingly radical, needs to at least be heard and I'm sure even his most aggresive critics would give many of his points credit. Many highschool students would do well to hear him out, if only for the benefit of being able to understand and view the labor market more correctly through the eyes of the employer. My only complaint is his penultimate chapter. While a pretend debate with caricatures of his opponents is a creative way to summarize, it does seem to comes off as pretentous. Overall a great and important read and I thank Caplan for "whistle-blowing" his own industry.

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  • Oly Joe II
  • 26-02-20

Sadly, this book tells us what we already knew or at least suspected.

True insight into the education I received starting in 1949. I was a very good student squandered on things I have never used subsequently. I have family that have used home schooling with great success. Now they are starting internet college classes and are doing very well.

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  • Kevin Parkinson
  • 17-02-21

Trash book

You know the scene from "The Office" in which Pam is telling Michael not to date her mom, and then Michael says he's going to start dating her even harder? Well if Pam is author Bryan Caplan, and if I'm Michael, and if education is dating Pam's mom, then that's exactly how I felt after reading this book.

I bought this book for a few reasons. First, it was part of a two-for-one Audible sale. Second, I was fooled by the click bait title. Third, while I knew I wouldn't be completely convinced to give up my life's work, I did think that maybe listening to critical voices would help me be more nuanced. Like, perhaps, I should strive to make school more applicable, or more engaging, or I should be more transparent, or whatever. I thought, "If somebody is going to write an entire book against education, they must have some valid points, and while I likely won't concede with their underlying thesis, perhaps I can be nudged into a stronger direction." And yet, the book was so poorly constructed that I took no meaningful lessons away.

This book is the worst type of books. It is remarkably arrogant, but pretends not to be. For example, for a few chapters he presents lengthy algorithms for calculating education's worth both to individuals and to societies. During these chapters he readily admits that some of his numbers are merely best guesses, and he invites readers to substitute their own figures instead. By doing so, he gives he illusion of humility, but - in reality - while he invites you to adjust the specific numbers, he takes for granted the formula itself. It's as if you're welcome to disagree with him, but only within the confines of his own paradigm. This paradigm, by the way, is one that claims to value both empirical research and the everyday experiences of average Americans. However, he clearly cherry picks which research and experiences to highlight, all the while chastising traditional academics for doing the exact same thing. Once again we are left with an illusion that Caplan is fair and objective, but it's a trick of smoke and mirrors. This all culminates in a ridiculous hour-long play in which several characters argue the fine points before ultimately conceding that the author has been right all along. Again, it APPEARS as though he is being objective here; that he is considering counter arguments. But in the fantasy he has contrived, he still controls the narrative. This is a matter of course - no author could write from any other perspective. But if you're not reading carefully, that fact is easy to miss, and you could walk away from the charade assuming the author is more credible than he actually is. It's kind of like when you're taking a shower and in your mind you replay arguments you've had with people but in a way that completely annihilates the other person. True, you at least acknowledge their points, but only in a way that smashes them down. It is nothing more than lip service. If the author was part of a genuine discussion in the real world in which he couldn't dictate the flow of conversation, his ideas would quickly be dismissed, and rightfully so.

Though he directly claims not to be in the book, the author is a cynical economist. He is a cynic and a contrarian who profits in saying outlandish and extreme positions. And he is a cold-hearted economists who can't see the value of anything other than a well-prepared labor force, even when he tries to. I've seen other reviewers say "after reading this book I'll never look at education the same way again." If that's the case, I feel bad for them. What a terrible way to view the world.

He claims to not be a cynical economist, but he is. What he is NOT is anyone with actual experience in improving K12 education. Some of the biggest problems we've seen in education have come from people like Caplan who arrogantly like to dictate what is necessary without any CLUE as to what is really going on. If you read this book as a practitioner, especially if you have a lens towards social justice, prepare to be frustrated.

Listen: I'm not calling for blind optimism. There are PLENTY of reasons to be critical of our education system (ironically, most of which are not at all addressed by Caplan). But this book ain't it.

I could go point by point on his book but it's not even worth my time. I will say this: It's 2021 and this man has a book suggesting we shouldn't have civics or science classes. *gestures at world around*

Please don't read this book, please don't spend money on it, please don't rent it from your local library. And for the love of all things holy please don't stroke this poor little man's ego any more than it already has been. It's clear that Caplan is the center of his own little universe, and it's no good for the world for that to continue. I can only pray that I forget about this book quickly. The book is complete and total trash amen.

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  • Nick Peralta
  • 01-03-20

This book will change your opinions on Education

Like the author, I have always felt that my schooling had a lot of unnecessary aspects that felt like a waste of time and money. He very clearly demonstrates exactly why so many of us feel failed by our 13-20 years of time spent learning things we knew we would never actually need to know.

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  • The Old Knight
  • 07-08-18

The Education System is a waste

Do we really need to spend all these years in different school levels and college to get jobs?

Mr. Caplan proves in this book that the answer is no. In reality, degrees provide signals to employers of certain skills such as hard work and conformity. Most of nontechnical degrees give people knowledge they will quickly forget and and none of this knowledge is translated to actual job skills. Employers look for college graduates because in a world where everyone thinks that college is important, those who drop out send clear negative signals.

Mr. Caplan uses research and surveys from different fields to come to his conclusions. Its an interesting read that I hope will make us question the resources we waste on college education in its current form and the years of production we lose by keeping young people in schools for increasing number of years instead of letting them join the work force and actual contribute to the economy.

6 people found this helpful

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  • Salatiso
  • 05-02-21

Education is grossly overrated , great book

Great book and great perfomence, confirms what I long suspected. Couldn't be more true anywhere as it is here in South Africa. Despite the billions spent on 'free' education and 'demands' from social justice warriors for free tertiary education the country is sitting with a multitude of unemployed/ unemployable graduates. Instead of learning skills the focus was on Signaling, focusing on qualifications for employers instead of learning skills to pull oneself out of poverty.

Economy tanks as should every socialist economy, no money for government to create jobs by bloating it's structures so now people don't have employment. Worse is that since the focused on Signaling instead of learning trades and skills, even with a 3/ 4 year degree they can't even solve their problems and provide at least for themselves! A substantial proportion of these worthless degrees were funded by government loans which will never be paid back! On top of that since the graduates can't get employment or employ themselves social justice warriors advocate for social support grants, another burden to the economy!

Amongst those who bear it are the few practical people who opted to go an work or settle for less prestigious careers as plumbers, mechanics etc. These are the people that lost a substantial portion of their income to fund these worthless degrees. Fortunately I could see the signs as a teen, this book merely confirmed the obvious which makes it that much more valuable, as the author says "You don’t have to be a professor to see it, but only a professor can credibly say it."

1 person found this helpful

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  • Colleen
  • 11-01-21

The most important book on education

This book does for education what Cialdini's book Influence does for the psychology of persuasion -- it gives structure to a drastically undervalued and poorly understood discipline.

As someone who excelled in school but was terribly confused by the system, I can honestly say that this book has changed the way I view education. I wish this was taught in high school.

Also, I normally refuse to listen to audiobooks that are not read by the author, but this narrator was excellent.

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  • Alan C. Earing
  • 28-09-20

As an educator...

I appreciate this book! My undergrad is in Economics and the hardest choice I have ever had to make was to stop my pursuits towards Econ Academia there... but, every once in a while, I get to sojourn with my young subject of affection.

I share Caplan's views about higher education, but I struggle with them regarding K-12... having read this, I can say that I'm even more conflicted!

Alas, I let these ideas bounce around in my mind, and instead of worrying about my efficacy as an instructor, or being scared that my "bad" kids will end up in the prison system or worse, I worry that I'm holding my brilliant pupils back... These concerns find balance points and it guides my pedagogy. I empathize with those kids who feel trapped in my classes, and I freely admit that I hold different expectations of different kids... and I try to let the kids dictate THAT! Well, the kids and their parents. I think Caplan is on to something because parents of excellent and poor students alike prefer that I teach to their kids' specific needs.

The world isn't fair and equitable, but all my students have access to ME equally. whether that means learning how to learn how to perform for a test... which I teach, or learning the deeper applications of the content... which I teach, or just getting through the course as painlessly... nay, comfortably... as possible... which I strive for, each kid can choose which path to take.

Now, if the system crashed, I think I would NOT be out of a job because I can market these paths to a variety of consumers who would pay for the paths I offer, I should think, gladly! And, I might even earn more in the private market than I do as a government employee!

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  • Davide V.
  • 10-10-19

A thought provoking tour de force

If education interests you and you like debating, this book is for you. It dares going in really tricky territory and brings forward many interesting arguments.
Having said that, the book's weakest spot is that it seems to be in love with its own contrarian nature (for instance the part on policy reform feels simplistic, adds little to the book and alienates the readership - it could have been expressed differently), which makes it more difficult to gloss over the various flaws in the arguments. Anyway when a book inspires you to sit down and write your own thoughts on a complex topic, as this one did for me, I think it's ultimately worth recommending.

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  • Teao
  • 24-09-20

Don't let the title put you off

An in depth and honest discussion of the tangible and intangible merits and downsides of modern education and the magnitude of these factors.

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  • Montberte
  • 27-04-19

Fascinating viewpoint

Whilst I do not agree with all of this book it is a fascinating read and challenges many preconceived perceptions on the "value" of education to both individuals and society. In my opinion we certainly need to review the "Human Capital" worth of the content of our educational courses as much of it is no longer fit for purpose UNLESS we are only looking at what the writer calls signalling. Where I disagree is the worth of arts and creativity education although I do agree that much of the contents of existing curricula in these areas is only of a signalling value. This does not, however, devalue the potential for these courses in a changing world re their potential to deliver some of the current skills gap requirements......

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  • Mr. D. Whittaker
  • 10-08-18

Very thought provoking and persuasively argued.

While I don't agree with all Caplan says - he presents a very utilitarian, functionalist view of education that almost exclusively foregrounds economics and business - his arguments are well made and starkly worrying. Great food for thought and performed well by the narrator.

1 person found this helpful

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  • Mr. John Mitchell
  • 09-02-21

one good point drawn out to fill a book

not much more to add that the title. read the first 40 pages then move on to a different book is my advice.

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  • Luca Nicotra
  • 07-12-19

How good is the return on investment on education?

A host of persuasive arguments backed up by in-depth research. Very valuable to anyone interested in education.

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  • Tony
  • 22-06-19

Dr Caplan does his iconoclastic thing

Brian Caplan has a talent for finding sacred cows to slay. He backs his claims up with data, in a way that should be much more common. One criticism is that he assumes more markets operate like perfect competition than do in reality.

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  • jonathan
  • 25-07-18

Radically changed the way I think about education

The performance is very good and the content is extremely interesting, well researched and thought-provoking.

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  • terry
  • 16-08-18

Massive Libertarian bias

The narrator was great.

The book, however, was a tale of two halves. Brian begins with making a compelling case I favour of his main thesis that education is 80% signalling for the labour market and 20% building of human capital. If he had stopped there this could have been a good book. I was largely convinced of his signalling arguments.

However, the book takes a sharp turn into the fictional fairytale world of Libertarianism once he begins making conclusions and presenting his arguments for solutions. Brian makes large leaps of logic defying assumptions to tie the facts presented in the 1st two-thirds of the book with the conclusions he draws in the final third.

He frequently takes the line that his Libertarian beliefs are a given and never provides any evidence to back them up.

If you are a Libertarian then perhaps this book will provide further support for your hopelessly naive beliefs.

If you are not Libertarian, however, then the signalling portion of the book is a worthwhile read. The rest, though, is nonsense.

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  • andrew
  • 02-07-19

Read the title

As the author himself states this is the case against education, its biased in a way to make education look like a bad investment. It should be taken with more diverse views and the case for education is easy to come by as its fairly popular to support more education.

I agree with some of the points in this book and think that many governments should rethink the way they structure and fund education, but I wouldn't say that the education system is a complete waste of time and money.

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  • Ben Preston
  • 22-10-18

Interesting and engaging

A very thought provoking book. I'm not convinced that the signaling effect is as large as Caplan estimates but it is clear that there is a signalling effect. I would love to see sone international comparisons.

1 person found this helpful

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  • Anonymous User
  • 18-01-19

terrible book

this book is absolutely useless. a psychologist can do an IQ test on you that tells you your strengths and weaknesses. everything in this book is garbage.