I got a lot of fully-subsidised education: more than 20 years’ worth. In educated circles this is seen as an unalloyed good; I am thought to have benefited both myself and society 4. But I find myself seriously concerned that I actually wronged people with the latter 10. Say there are four kinds of benefits from education.
Wonderful things! But if the social ones aren’t larger than the social cost, then state education will tend to be taking from society and giving to those who happen to be above-average in nerdiness. 2
Is education a good deal overall, including for people who don’t get it? I can’t actually resolve this question in less than a book. The algorithm is
- enumerate the (confusing, mixed, methodologically flawed evidence for) benefits and costs
- put them on a common scale
- take the ratio
The following is just part of step 1.
How to think about education’s social benefits
We should distinguish private returns (pay, increased confidence, increased knowledge, increased social capital for you) from social returns (productivity, political contributions, cultural reproduction if you like). The former are good, incredibly good, but not a matter for government policy insofar as they include zero-sum benefits, and if there are better ways to spend public funds.
Are educated people more productive? Yes. But did their education cause this? To some extent!
The reason to pay particular attention to the economic side of the social return is not that money is the most important thing, but because anything that doesn’t give net economic returns can’t be kept up without trading off against something else, like infrastructure, or social care, or life-giving research, or (let me dream) the fate of the world.
You might note that academics produce a large proportion of all inventions and new ideas. This too is confounded: science was more productive when university intakes were 1% of current levels. And the relationship between basic science and technology is less straightforward than it seems.
Two of the most careful psychologists I know came out with an astonishing result: that education actually improves cognitive abilities, perhaps 3 points per marginal year. (Clearly this wouldn’t scale indefinitely, but even at normal 10 year levels it’s a remarkable effect.) And it was a n=600,000 meta-analysis of 142 analyses.
If this doesn’t astonish you, then you haven’t being paying attention to just how hard it is to raise intelligence (except by correcting malnutrition or severe pollution).
If this estimate is on the correct order of magnitude, then while there are massive private benefits to this effect, the social gains from more capable citizens will be huge.
The humanist response is that educating your citizens produces huge noneconomic public goods, like critical thought or voluntarism or political purpose or empathy or taste or cultural continuity (“pass it on!”).
The private noneconomic return is enormous, larger than the huge private economic return, for some people. e.g. 4 years of relative freedom, away from home, surrounded by bright horny people can be very good for your later worldview, life goals, and mental health. You get space to build yourself new. Or if not build, then to locate yourself in culture, philosophy, and personality space.
But again, what matters in policy terms is the relative size of social gain and social cost.
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This is quite easy to check: how much do people remember from uni, for how much of their lives?
- Doctors have forgotten all of their basic science training 5 years out
(I remember being scandalised by some of my peers selling all their textbooks as soon as they graduated. But clearly they knew more about social reality than me.)
Cultural continuity - preserving the knowledge and ideas of past generations - depends on a mixture of education and autodidacts. I don’t know what the value of preserving a tradition of Hegelianism or Canadian Irish studies is.
But people know this isn’t the real reason for education, because they instead emphasise metacognition, “learning how to think”:
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This is in the same vein as the old “reading novels makes you empathetic” research programme.
I have no idea if this is generally true - I was a critical voluntarist before university, the most empathetic people I know did not go to university, and most of my Arts peers emerged with none of these things - but I can tell you I had a very good time. And this, the self-justifying private fulfilment, gives me reason to worry about society’s end of the bargain. It’d be very convenient if what (bookish and middle-class) people found most personally fulfilling was also the best thing for all.
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Does it make people engage more with actual politics? (Not just social media talk: volunteering, running.)
Does it make people more tolerant and cosmopolitan?
What’s the social cost?
Going off millennials: About £4k per primary education year per child (£28k), in the 1990s budget. About £6k per secondary education year (£36k). In England, the uni participation rate for 17-30s is now 50%. So scale the £45k cost of a 3-year degree by half to get an expected spend. So it's an average of £87,000 per recent person 3.
Plus the opportunity cost of 5 years of work, £50k-100k productivity. Nor does it count whatever the opportunity cost is of 20,000 hours of your youth, legally confiscated from you.
However, I think my education cost others about £150,000 67. Or, £4.7bn a year for the policy (40% over the present budget), if every child in Scotland was as nerdy and shameless as me. (Big if.)
There is something beautiful about how hard I had to work to find out this number: in Scotland, the system "worked", in the sense of insulating poor me from all prudential considerations.
I told a coworker this figure and, as a good fiscal dove, he was horrified - until he recalled that "at least you were working for most of that". True: even with state largesse, I still worked about 11 years out of these 21. I doubt my paper round or my waitering or even my database administration offset the social cost, and I doubt he thought it did. What really worried him was the menacing eternal student, who never gets over himself, never stops fearing the long dull throb of work, and who continues to take from others indefinitely.
I found this narrow at the time, but now I take it quite seriously.
Are there better ways to spend £90k per person? (Yes: but let’s limit it to UK recipients.)
- personal tutor at PhD level, 3 hours a day for three years.
- poverty alleviation
Primary and secondary education takes at least 15,000 hours of the most curious and vital years of everyone alive 5. Billions of hours of fruitless boredom. Literacy and numeracy are probably worth this on their own, so factor out primary school, for only 6000 hours of confiscated life.
You probably know someone who was traumatised by their school years. Even if only 5% of pupils suffer this much, it throws a huge shadow over the social benefit. But even boredom, or unfreedom, or being forced to associate with cruel people count. (One suggestive result: closing schools for coronavirus was correlated with a 20% drop in teen anxiety rate.)
People who suffer from uni are rarer, but I’ve met a few. They are totally ignored in the discourse, in favour of the Ennobling Creation of Citizens or 4 Year Crazy Party memes.
Credential inflation as perverse redistribution
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Using school as the main signal of employability is terrible for the many people who cannot handle bureaucracy, being told what to do, pointless makework, or authority. Autodidacts are amazing but rare and rarely respected as much as they should be.
Caplan’s contention is that the wage premium of degree-holders mostly comes at the expense of non-degree-holders.
(Other costs: student debt distress, bondage.)
What’s the alternative?
1. Wealth for all
The most dramatic counterfactual: the government just giving you the money they would have spent on you, after 20 years of investment returns:
what if the government had taken this figure and invested it in the stock market at the moment of your birth? Today when you graduate college, they remove it from the stock market, put it in a low-risk bond, put a certain percent of the interest from that bond into keeping up with inflation, and hand you the rest each year as a basic income guarantee. How much would you have?
$15,000 a year, adjusted for interest. We can add the $5,800 basic income guarantee we could already afford onto that for about $20,000 a year, for everyone. Black, white, man, woman, employed, unemployed, abled, disabled, rich, poor. Welcome to the real world, it’s dangerous to go alone, take this. What, you thought we were going to throw you out to sink or swim in a world where if you die you die in real life? Come on, we’re not that cruel. So when we ask whether your education is worth it, we have to compare what you got – an education that puts you one grade level above the uneducated and which has informed 3.3% of you who Euclid is – to what you could have gotten. 20,000 hours of your youth to play, study, learn to play the violin, whatever. And $20,000 a year, sweat-free.
2. Grad tax
The above could be taken as an argument for fees: “the individual plausibly benefits more than society, so let them cough up a bit”. But substantial fees are pretty much a shitshow, certainly in the high-interest, inexorable, cartelized form that exist England and America, where the prices are uniform and useless. But (if we cannot tear down this credentialist bullshit, as below) then certainly a graduate tax is fully justified.
3. Regulating credential pollution
Rather, we should replace the hegemony of higher education - make it so that young people don’t need a degree to get decent jobs, or in fact most jobs (besides doctor and pilot and so on).
In extremis, we could make education a protected category in job interviews. We would rely on actual portfolios, entry tests, and work trials (which are open to all and actually measure the relevant quantities) instead of pompous paper. (Aptitude tests are illegal in some American industries, so you’d have to reverse that first.) This would be a more powerful intervention against inequality than free fees, because it would catch the many smart people who do not fit the conformist, examination form of ‘training’.
It might take something as radical as this to stop students defecting against each other and continuing the ruinous cycle. (Besides making education level a discriminatory question, a full basic income would work, too.)
The problem with equalising the status of graduates and nongraduates is that higher education is fêted by absolutely bloody everyone: parents, governments, giant corporations, reptilian economists, frothing radicals, whether anarchists, neoliberals, or Juche cadres. (Everyone except a minority of libertarians.) The uniqueness of its cross-cultural appeal means that it is presently the only way that young people can possibly get 4 years of relative freedom to locate themselves, and to do so surrounded by people from all around the world, and to do so in an atmosphere which rewards many kinds of deviance.
You could maybe do this by funding (voluntary) international service; basically giving working-class kids some gap years, too. The cult of travel is nearly as powerful as the cult of school, after all.
Expanding the student intake causes credential inflation, which feeds back to expand the next student intake, but it also expands the number of academic jobs, which props up the PhD / adjunct grinder.
Jock the radical
My granda (who ended up farming the same land) used to grouse about this, 70 years later: he complained that Jock bought books instead of buying him shoes. He never read any of them, just stuck them in the attic for a lifetime, for me to eventually find.
What I'd do differently
Recently, though, I've realised some easy things I could have done to be a better writer / scholar / researcher as of 2017. (They are hardly tragedies though, just inefficiencies.)
Picking courses as a 17 year old in a country without tuition fees, I latched on to the most obvious sources of meaning: philosophy, music, literature. But I could have gotten into physics or stats or computer science if I'd applied (I did get in for biology). And these would serve my present purposes much more, because I'm aiming at truth, and these latter are our greatest machineries of truth.
I don't regret my MA. (Though I probably would if I were English.) Formal philosophical study - that is, seeing what knots and messes the greatest minds in history have tied themselves into, working off no data - has probably saved me from some errors people make when they slip into metaphysics unawares.
And it has probably made me less overconfident that the world can be solved by pure, solitary thought. ("The penalty for not doing philosophy is giving bad philosophical arguments a free pass.") And I have a thick layer of protective scepticism about macroeconomics.
But I would have read philosophy and poetry anyway - I have a great appetite for them, and had it before I got institutional grounding - and so would have gotten much of the inoculation against bad philosophy and the realisation of the relative shallowness of great artists even had I done something harder.
As it is, I've been scrabbling to piece together an education in scientific modelling ever since graduating, and it has taken ages on my own, and I am quite sure that I did this backwards. (Needless to say, the average 2010 economics curriculum was not scientific enough to count.)
But ooh. "Inoculation against bad philosophy and bad economics": is this is the most positive case I can make for my classes? Yes but never mind classes: the greater part of the value came from having 4 years to straighten out my head, and a hundred wonderful people from over the world to collide with, brighter than anyone I'd known before. But again, I'd probably have found them as a physics boy; it was a small university, and my nature is not so malleable.
The distinctive value of an arts degree - that it draws creative misfitting people, that it's low-intensity enough for you to have many projects and loves without constant stress, that it permanently demystifies the baroque, ridiculous world of high culture - are wonderful, but I think I'd rather know how the world works, on balance.
2. Code everything
After my arts degree I switched into software development, a viscerally satisfying career to me. Not just talk, not just interpretation: but fucking building things.
But as well as a fun career, code is an incredible way of expressing thought. You get an oracle, the compiler, tell you if it could possibly be true.
Coding is a novel way of thinking in general. Yes, it is like maths - but testable, causal, interactive.
A programming language is "how you tell a computer what to do". But before that it's a way to express ideas and get push back from a rational oracle. (It's not reality that's pushing back, of course. You don't know if they're true, but you know if they are clear, if they could even possibly be true, if you are not completely fooling yourself.)
Consider the Bible, or Karl Marx's work, or Sigmund Freud's work. These are rammed full of invalid and unsound ideas - but they are beautiful, unified, and powerful, so they proved persuasive to billions of people. Human language offers no easy test of consistency, no way of really precisely connecting idea to idea. We have had only hard, piecemeal, irreplicable interpretation.
To see what's added by code, here's a thought experiment: Imagine the economic value of a line-by-line description, in English, of the Linux kernel. It would be nothing compared to the billions of dollars of value the kernel has created or saved.
The computability of source code is a side effect of its clarity. Code is testable thought. </i>
I'm converting my maths notes into Python as a matter of urgency, because standard Mathscript is not good. I don't know why this took 2 years to occur to me; clearly the claws of the arts run deep.
This macroeconomics course, in Python and Julia, has crystallised a host of things I only mechanically learned before.
In philosophy, it would have let me get into the thriving and objectively progressive research programmes: philosophy of information, logics, cellular automata, and so on. Here are two great examples of coded philosophy, as proof of concept.
I have learned more about economics from reading Quiggin, Krugman, Harford, Hanson, Caplan, Friedman Jr, and Smith than I did in two full years' worth of lectures at Aberdeen. Which is strange, because most of them are academics. But, because their readers are from broad backgrounds, the writing is vastly superior to that of papers: clearer, briefer, and more easily evaluated for both rigour and well-foundedness. In 2010 the econ 'sphere wasn't as highly developed as it is now, but was still good enough.
In stats, Andrew Gelman, Uri Simonsohn, and Cosma Shalizi's blogs have taught me what's wrong with science and how to fix it, which I didn't get a jot of in classes.
(Philosophy and maths benefit less from this, because their usual texts are more digestible and more ineliminably systematic, respectively.)
This step wouldn't have improved my grades much, because of teaching-to-the-test.* But it would give me what universities are supposed to give: firm grounding in expert knowledge about things which matter, and the ability to apply it appropriately.1
Over the past 4 years, out of uni, I've read an average 102 books a year. They have been about everything; it has been wonderful. A four-year cruise for about £300.
But I am persuaded that this isn't how you contribute to human knowledge. The absurdities of siloed scholarship - economists and anthropologists and sociologists and psychologists and all talking about the same thing, but wholly ignorant of each others' insights - are large, and can't be fixed except by people who own several hats. But everything else is done by specialists, because the coalfaces of knowledge are very far from common sense, in several different directions, and anyone who tries to reach several of them is likely to end up near where they started.
One of my resolutions this year is to read fewer than 25 books, but to make them all count. I have a folder, "Spoilers for Reality", with textbooks and serious crap to get through. (In each of those hundred-book years I was supposed to be studying maths, and you can imagine how much I actually did.)
- Chris Olah
- Sam Knoche’s skin in the game
- The counterintuitively humane Bryan Caplan
- Alex Danco on alternative academic communication and gatekeeping.
- Linda on PhDs
- A dark implication: that one could be better-off, in finances but also in knowledge, without uni altogether. (Since they distract you with password learning and rote crap.) We rely on the spiritual and psychological gains of 4 years of relative leisure. And at the micro level, this is a clear good deal.
- The size of the opportunity cost varies. If the government were well-run, we would give the resources to the poor, or to public infrastructure. But it's not clear where they'd actually go.
- This, the total private + social cost of uni, was hard to dig up. Per graduate in England, it's about £45,000 : £27k from fees and £18k from maintenance and loans. I've just used this English figure, bumped up to four years. £45k / 3 years = £15k per year.
- The truth: I got so much education because I was not smart enough to not need so much.
- (6.5 hours in class + 1.5 hours commute) * 175 days a year * 11 years = 15,400
£4k per 90s primary year * 7 years = £28k
£6k per secondary year * 6 years = £36k.
£15k per undergrad year * 4 years = £60k.
£15k per postgrad year = £15k.
Open Uni = about £10k
This OU figure is very rough, for a Scotsman: £6k private cost and £10k from government
Very roughly: £24m annual budget / 15,000 students * 6 years part-time = £9600