The Case Against The Case Against Education: Toe Fungus Prevention

Part Three of my Caplan thoughts.


–Caplan, The Case Against Education

In Caplan’s world, toe fungus stands in for the “disease” of no education. The fungus cream is public schools. Caplan believes he’s proved that public school hasn’t worked, and thus we should stop funding public education. Live with the illiteracy and innumeracy that is only slightly mitigated, and then temporarily, by failing public education.

Caplan screws up the analogy. He says the obvious remedy is  “don’t use the cream”  (end all public education) but then explores “use less of the cream” (end subsidies) or “buy a cheaper cream” (curriculum austerity).

But I digress. Caplan uses some extremely old data–the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL). The NAAL results are categorized as Below Basic, Basic, Intermediate, and Proficient (the survey had originally wanted to use “Advanced”, but considered it too value-laden. As if “Proficient” isn’t.) Caplan uses this data to argue that Americans are incredibly uneducated and therefore American education is terrible–the toe fungus that can’t be cured.

There’s a lot wrong with his analysis, some of which I’ll hold off until the next chunk, and he misrepresents NAAL’s connection to public education. Besides, static education snapshots are pointless. Change over time and disaggregation, baby, or it’s nothing. So I disaggregated by education category and found change over time, using the same report Caplan cites.

NAAL has three categories of assessment: prose, document, and quantitative. The adults surveyed were captured by their highest level of education: still in high school all the way through graduate degree.  So I broke the scores into two categories. First, on the left, are the scores of those whose highest education was vocational school or lower. On the right, those with some college through graduate degrees. In each case, the graph shows the average score for that category in 1992 and then in 2003. I’m terrible at data display, but I made the axes the same–the actual scores go from 0 to 500, but that was too small.

naal2003prosechgHS naal2003prosechgCO
naal2003docchgHS naal2003docchgCO
naal2003quantchgHS naal2003quantchgCO

She average reading ability of an individual with post-secondary education declined significantly from 1992 to 2003, while the decline in high school educated reading abilities declined less significantly or not at all. Quant scores were unchanged.

Here’s another take on the data, using a graph straight from the report. The percentage of “proficient” readers declined significantly for most college categories, while remaining largely unchanged for the high school only educated groups.

At the low end, the “less than/some high school” reading abilities dropped in the prose category, but the rest remained largely unchanged.


Caplan doesn’t look at change over time, and so doesn’t take on the challenge of explaining why the average college graduate living in America became less proficient at reading over a decade.

Caplan’s opponents in the economics field argue that education builds human capital. Human capital is, or should be, reflected in the score gaps between different education categories. Those with some college should have higher scores than those with none, and so on.

So I calculated the change in the gap between “adjacent” education categories from the 1992 NAAL to the 2003 study.




So in one decade, the human capital improvement of education dropped in all but one college category.

From 1992 to 2003, high schools produced the same caliber of student. Colleges produced lower quality students that had built less human capital with their increased education.

It will come as no surprise that colleges produced more graduates than before.


Caplan goes on about inflated credentials, the perils of increased access. But he doesn’t acknowledge a simple truth: it’s colleges, not high schools, that have significantly deteriorated in their ability to build human capital.


Because they are increasingly reaching further down into the barrel, accepting everyone. They’re accepting kids who can’t read at an eighth grade level, who can’t do middle school math. They have no standards beyond what’s on the high school transcript (giving high schools tremendous incentives of the wrong sort). For the past several decades, post-secondary education have been accepting transcripts at face value, then testing the students to establish how truthful the transcript was, then putting the students whose abilities didn’t match the transcript into remediation. Every state has its tale of trying to increase access, only to learn how shockingly unprepared and incapable students were, and how their efforts at remediation ended in failure.

All these efforts have only depreciated the value of a college degree. But not content with accepting unqualified students and trying to remediate them before, sadly, flunking them out, colleges kept reaching further down. It’s now quite possible to get accepted to college with Algebra 2 on the transcript, demonstrate that you have only elementary school math, take middle school math classes for credit, and earn a degree. No more remediation. Math was the last holdout; English and grammar requirements have been much easier to ignore.

Caplan argues that most cost benefit analyses for college education fail to account for dropouts. But colleges are reducing the risk of dropping out by lowering standards even further. His own college accepts unqualified students every year; 25% of George Mason’s freshmen enter with SAT scores below the “college ready” standard.  Now that colleges are ending remediation and giving credit for middle school ability, the risk of dropping out will continue to diminish. Those who want to “signal” will have to get graduate degrees–and of course, some academic will come along in a few years and deem “graduate degree” a “path to success”, and then everyone will do that.

“Would you rather have a Princeton degree without the education, or the Princeton education without the degree?”  Caplan asks, and readers go oooooh and aahh.

But that wasn’t always the case. Back when a college degree had meaning, a degree from a decent public university meant an education that would take one further than a Princeton diploma with no knowledge. Unfortunately, colleges have unilaterally obliterated all faith in their ability to educate, leaving  competitive admissions  on test scores–tests not administered by colleges in any way–as the only indicator of potential intelligence.

Caplan’s fix is to deny all educational funding. Applying that solution simply to colleges won’t solve anything. Colleges will still have the incentive to lower standards. The free market won’t fix the signalling problem. Ending public funding of education won’t stop colleges from lowering standards and giving degrees to anyone who can buy them. It will just deny any chance of education to those who can’t afford it. Over time, America under Caplan’s rule would be a country where rich people got educated, not smart people. We spent generations giving opportunity to those who could achieve. Our error was not spending too much money, but forgetting the meaning and the demands of education itself.

In Caplan’s view, “We would be better off if education were less affordable.” He wants to deny education to everyone who can’t afford it.

Why make it about money? Why not about ability?

We could prevent  or minimize toe fungus, the failure to successfully educate,  at the college level by setting a standard for college entry. Those who meet the standard can still qualify for public funding. I suggested a standard, back when I was an optimist who couldn’t even imagine colleges abolishing remediation.

Setting a standard for college entry would reduce the risk of failure as well as increase the human capital earned by even an incomplete education. Going to college wouldn’t just be another educational choice, but a choice only available to those who have the ability to develop and use the education.

Understand that I’m not some purist, calling for the days of Latin and Greek. I’m saying that colleges should accept students who can read, write, and calculate at an agreed-upon level. The levels we used in the 30 years after World War 2 would do nicely.

There are obviously–oh, so very obviously–political problems that go along with restricting access to higher education. But Caplan, man, he’s bold. He’s fearless. “In any other industry, a whistle-blower would be an outcast.”

So why call to eliminate public funding, denying education to qualified people who can’t afford it, while not bothering to fix the obvious standards problem in college admissions?

Maybe Caplan’s political ideology suggests the nail to which libertarianism has the hammer. I dunno.

What I do know is that people have been complaining about “too many kids are going to college” for forty years or more. It’s not new. It’s not bold. The devil is very much in the details. Which Caplan avoids.


About educationrealist

14 responses to “The Case Against The Case Against Education: Toe Fungus Prevention

  • Roberta

    Great analysis.

    BTW, Caplan loves to present himself as libertarian but clearly has no idea what formal L/libertarians are talking about/doing.

  • Michael Watts

    Why are the scores of those whose highest education is high school unchanged? If the model is that colleges are reaching down to admit students who wouldn’t previously have been qualified to go to college, that certainly explains why college scores have fallen. But if colleges are taking the best of the dregs, then high school scores should have fallen too. For college scores to fall while high school scores stay the same, colleges would need to reach down and then admit a perfectly representative cross section of the dregs.

    • educationrealist

      Colleges aren’t taking the best of the dregs. They are far more likely to take black and Hispanic low scores than whites, and there’s far more pressure on Asians, blacks and Hispanics to go to college than whites.

      • educationrealist

        There are also other reasons for the college degree reading scores to go down that Caplan should have mentioned that I’ll mention in the next piece. But I’m playing his game here.

  • Jim

    Conservatives (or any branch that one could deem an offshoot, i.e. libertarian) have done more to poison the well on education than liberals. Strictly speaking, if you view everything through an economic lens, college and just about all education starting around 9th grade is, at the very least, superfluous if not useless. To join the ranks of the well fed workforce does not require an abundance of knowledge. That is not the point of education, never has and, ideally, never will. I hate to wade into pretentious waters but the Socratic quote of “the mind is a flame to be kindled, not a vessel to be filled” is one that seems to elude them.

    Caplan I guess is banking on Darwinism to solve this. People capable of well informed decision making or carry with them ideal qualities for positions of power; charisma, ambition, quick thinking, problem solving, etc will somehow tumble into these positions through willpower. Or maybe he’s thinking more Pygmalion and we’ll just invent (via classism) these people. Except education is about creating parameters for edification, not a panopticon to ensure success. Without the environment to incubate: whether by pushing or fostering the ability to learn, you’re going to have a shocking amount of illiterates. The idea people, of any age, let alone children, will just naturally gravitate towards things they find interesting and conquer them intellectually and that these things will be anything besides bad movies and video games is a specious at best theory.

    I dunno, I may be adding ZERO to what you are trying to get at, but conservative thought on education makes me want to pull my own teeth out and I need somewhere to vent. Maybe their way gets us an annual GDP of 8%, maybe, but have fun having a conversation in their country. We’ll need mass immigration at that point + plus a constitutional amendment to allow them to become elected president because I sure as hell don’t want Bob the Cro-Magnon as my leader.

    • educationrealist

      I see what your saying, but they *want* mass immigration (caplan and pals). I don’t.

    • Ralph Waldo Porcupine

      Modern education conforms in just about no way to the Socratic ideal (which was about very, very different schools anyway, at a time when anyone in school had an active desire to be there and learn the stuff)– so your argument doesn’t appear to me to amount to much. The economic argument for education is the only one which can possibly justify spending on this scale. What is worse, the non-economic parts of education have been taken over by activists.

  • Purple Tortoise

    “The levels we used in the 30 years after World War 2 would do nicely.”

    One thing to note about 30 years after WW2 is that it was about the last time when well-paying jobs could be had without much education. If we brought back such jobs again, then I think the rest of the problems besetting education would solve themselves.

    The elite can’t speak the truth that they prefer for non-educated Americans to get paid at the level of illegal immigrants or Vietnamese factory workers, and they are not willing to make the necessary political and economic changes to raise wages, so they instead propagate the lie that everyone could get high wages if only they were educated. That means everyone must do the “college track” in high school, and colleges are filled with students uninterested and/or incapable of receiving an education, but who are nonetheless there so they can “get a good job”. And most of them must be passed through, however poor their performance, because to lowering standards and increasing credentials takes the heat off the politicians to produce a real fix.

  • The Case Against The Case Against Education: How Well Are Americans Educated? | educationrealist

    […] Part four of my seemingly endless review of Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education. Parts one, two, and three. […]

  • Ralph Waldo Porcupine

    “Ending public funding of education won’t stop colleges from lowering standards and giving degrees to anyone who can buy them. It will just deny any chance of education to those who can’t afford it.”

    I disagree. The education bubble came like any bubble– from too much money chasing too few assets. The response was to increase apparent capacity, but you can’t simply increase the number of good teachers overnight, and it has no effect on pre-existing problems of political pressure on curricula (grade inflation pressure, for example, or activist pressures for useless majors like Grievance Studies, that contribute to the worthlessness of a considerable part of higher education), with the result that much of the increased capacity on the educational side was shallow. What the increased money could do was buy goods and buildings, with the resulting increase in luxurious amenities, and fairly useless services, such as more bureaucrats in charge of “diversity initiatives”.

    Denying that sort of education to those who can’t afford it is probably a good thing, because it keeps their minds focused on getting actual economic value for the money they do have.

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