School Is Expensive. Is It Worth It?

Thus Mr. Caplan’s case against education begins by acknowledging the case in favor of getting one. “It is individually very fruitful, and individually lucrative,” he says. Full-time workers with a bachelor’s degree, on average, “are making 73% more than high-school graduates.” Workers who finished high school but not college earn 30% more than high-school dropouts. Part of the difference is mere correlation: Mr. Caplan says if you adjust for pre-existing advantages like intelligence and family background, one-fifth to two-fifths of the education premium goes away. Even so, it really does pay to finish school.

. . .Which leads him to ask: “Why is it that employers would pay all of this extra money for you to go and study a bunch of subjects that they don’t actually need you to know?”

The answer is “signaling,” an economic concept Mr. Caplan explains with an analogy: “There’s two ways to raise the value of a diamond. One of them is, you get an expert gemsmith to cut the diamond perfectly, to make it a wonderful diamond.” That adds value by making the stone objectively better—like human capital in the education context. The other way: “You get a guy with an eyepiece to look at it and go, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, this is great—it’s wonderful, flawless.’ Then he puts a little sticker on it saying ‘triple-A diamond.’ ” That’s signaling. The jewel is the same, but it’s certified.

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