Why Our Education System is a Waste of Time and Money

The mysteries about education that no one has questioned before...

Why Our Education System is a Waste of Time and Money

This is a book I started listening to in a podcast; a debate on how our education system has failed us. The controversies fascinated me, so I bought the book, and here we are...

Education was first made mandatory around the mid-19th century in Massachusetts. By the end of the century, it was everywhere across the states. The growth of education has become so important and central to our identity that we are constantly told by politicians, teachers, or parents that 'school is the place that will make you a smart kid.'

People praise education as the ladder🪜 toward upward mobility. The federal government spends nearly $79 billion annually, almost 5% of the whole U.S. economy's GDP (about $20 trillion). People pay for an education, assuming it will make them more knowledgeable and employable.

But the author Bryan Caplan, an American economist, argues that today's education system doesn't seem to be designed to teach students practical job skills and prepare them for work. In fact, schools are overpriced and uneven in quality. In a typical primary school day, you have reading📖, writing📝, and math📚 classes for a few hours; a small fraction of the time you're in school, and then you get to play for the rest of the day with a supervised facility.

The true value of a college degree is a topic that deserves us to have an honest conversation on.

"Human Capital Investment"

  • What is education really for?

Sending kids to the U.S. for higher education is a heavy investment that could cost millions. But parents are happy investing anyway because they believe it is worthy. "A college experience would transform my kid into a skillful individual."

But today, schools don't make career readiness their top 1 priority. From all the years we've been at school, it's hard not to notice that many classes bore students to death by forcing them to study stuff they don't care bout.

Since Grade 7, we were encouraged to read Macbeth in English Literature, participate in choir🎤, and learn to play a musical instrument🎷. But is there any plausible employment for those? The conclusion that 'education pours practical skills into you' is a dangerous trap we have all jumped into.

It's shocking for me to see how many students in our school take Further Mathematics. How on earth are you going to apply that to the real world? The majority of jobs don't even use algebra! Most of what you learn in your last two high school years will never be used again after taking your last final exam.

  • We have all been fooled.

That is to say, most of what we are taught in school won't even help us the slightest to get our first job interview. Look at the curriculum. How many courses that colleges offer are considered vocational? Medieval History? European Studies? Sociology? Fine Arts? Engineering is surely one, but those people are about 5%! It's a rare major notoriously known for producing workaholics ('isn't a part of the college experience supposed to be fun?').

If you were mistaken about the century of the Civil War⚔️, would you be unqualified for any jobs? The point is, if the government and schools are trying to prepare students for various occupations, instead of teaching them dysfunctional real-world knowledge, why not equip them with actual job trainings?

Inside the classroom – Harvard Business School

The Social Signalling Model

While schools don't seem to teach students anything practical, one major function of a college degree is that it acts as a social signal.

A college diploma is social proof. It distinguishes you from the rest, persuades people that you are someone to be befriended or perhaps be looked up to, and reassures the employers that you are worth hiring.

If people come to apply for the job holding academic records, it'd be much less time-consuming and costly for employers to pick out the 'right fit' by using their résumés as a rough sort. "Well, they're college graduates. Great. Perfect. They're managerial material."

  • Everybody's been just showing off...

The percentage of 18 to 24 years olds in college is more than ever. While the general population is seeking more years of education, hoping the stamp on their diplomas will give them an advantage in the labor market, the bar of how much schooling you need to get a job has risen tremendously. In the 1950s, around 35% of the US population would have finished high school; today, it's more than 90%.

This phenomenon has to do with credential inflation. People have started to believe that in order to have a successful career, more and more education is required. This is why we see some typical jobs for college graduates today are secretary, bartending, and driving taxis...

The rampant credential inflation has gotten to a point where you need a master's degree to do anything technical👨‍💼. The percentage of workers who need an occupational license in their fields has risen from 5% to nearly 30% in the past few decades. Of course, the skills required now are vastly different than before, and insisting on the importance of having a college degree has driven educational attainment. Still, it doesn't justify the cause of the ultra-excessive college graduates.

When school becomes survival rather than enlightenment.
  • Conformity

Education is about conformity, just like in countries where suits are the standard outfit to wear in an interview. Having graduated from college affirms being willing to submit to social norms – show up on time, listen to and follow instructions, and have a work ethic.

Often in school, we are asked to "be creative." But most of the time, employers don't want that! They want someone willing to follow orders, do what they're told, and accept criticism.

However, being too much of a conformist does not make you a better worker. If you're a top musician, simply playing the music that people came before you have written will not offer you a promising career – people would find it boring. People who can apply their unique intellectual power to the task that is given to them are the ones that always get 'sold out' the quickest.

"Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind of think." – Albert Einstein.

An example of the main reward we get from education as a signal of conformity would be how mainstream Chinese people perceive education. In China, people are expected to graduate from college. When visiting my relatives, I get asked the same question over and over again: "which school are you going to?" This is why taking a gap year is almost impossible here. With all the social pressure around you, saying something like "I'm taking a year off to enjoy myself" is a cardinal sin! It means you fail to cooperate under challenges, and your refusal to obey the conventional norm (complete your education in one breath) reflects very negatively on you.

  • The Sheepskin Effect

If you could choose from either '4 years of Princeton education experience with no official diploma' or 'a Princeton diploma with no education,' what would you like?

The majority of college students would choose the latter. For them, the main concern is to graduate successfully. They would rather go after easy graders to seek out A's even if they teach very little than find professors who genuinely care about your learning and try to pour knowledge into you but sometimes are harsh in giving you C's.

From studies done by economists, finishing the senior year pays a disproportionate amount of 7x as much as a regular year in college. It seems like crossing the finishing line (getting the diploma🎓) is what students and employers seem to care about. As a student, it drives me nuts seeing that more of my fellow classmates are worried about failing the final exam than subsequently forgetting what they learned ('take it or leave it!').

The reality has gotten so distorted that even a third-class graduate (4 years of getting c's and d's) has more chance of securing a job than a dropout. The market awards them for showcasing themselves as 'college graduates' even if the display is poor. The correlation between 'giving up your college education' and 'not a good worker' is hurting our society and it is not a true story.

A College Degree – The University of Michigan
  • Why care?

"If four years of college education pays me more than I would have been paid without it, that's good enough for me. Screw everything else!"

Well, it matters for society as a whole – the signaling model of education implies negative externalities. If a great number of individuals put effort into signaling, the picky employers will raise their expectations and standards of how much education people need to be worthy employees. "Alright, I want college graduates tending my fancy bar🍺."

Meanwhile, as more people are keen for postgrad and Ph.D. degrees, the admission requirements have become increasingly difficult. Those from less well-off socioeconomic backgrounds are suffering because they can't afford to pursue higher education.

For those mission-driven people who care more about the end of aims than the ways to achieve the outcome, sometimes, such intense competition between peers can lead to extreme – cheating.

I've seen many cases of students found guilty of cheating on standardized exams such as the SAT and TOEFL. But if the goal of education is to acquire skills, then wouldn't cheating simply be a waste of time?

People cheat to fool their teachers/parents/employers by impersonating good students. Such behavior is monstrous because it's a deliberately committed lie. Also, cheating hurts their fellow students because the action dilutes their signals' value.

'A gate towards success – college.'

What Needs to Be Done

'The more, the better.'

Across the globe, the support for education, healthcare, and welfare is a social desirability bias. Could you imagine a politician saying, "We have now put enough resources into public assistance."? It sounds terrible, doesn't make you seem like a caring and respectable person.

Going from kindergarten to complete undergrad roughly takes 18 years. And people now are consuming more of it! Why would it be beneficial to our society when laborers are pulled off for more and more years from the job market?

  • Policy Implications

College graduates would not be so ubiquitous if the market didn't reward education excessively. The first proposal is to cut government subsidies on education. If less federal and state money goes to colleges, tuition fees will rise, and demand for education will drop.

A cut✂️ in funding won't make schooling irrelevant but will lead students to spend fewer years sitting in classrooms. And since they're not learning much of use, the overarching effect will not be a deskilled workforce, but credential deflation; the amount of education you need to get a decent job will go down.

Secondly, redesigning the education system. Schools need to create more than a partial overlap between theoretical knowledge and practical skills. If all textbooks teach are a bunch of junk irrelevant to real life, kids will forget it anyway.

An image of the Yale campus.


"What else would we do with kids if they are not in school?"

One clear alternative is apprentice! There's no reason why teenagers can't start vocational training at a much earlier age than now. If anyone is worried that kids will be distracted from their much-more-important studies... As said, if schools are not that valuable anyway, wouldn't it be better to get kids to join the labor force? You still get to socialize with people, you get paid additionally, and it prepares you better for adult life.

For those not academically inclined, it is unrealistic to expect them to go to college and succeed. If their parents insist, the most likely outcome is that they will choose to drop out. Even worse, they'd be bitter about the whole education system for the rest of their lives. "I was not suited for any job because of those years I wasted in school!"

  • Philistinism

Some say it's philistine to not care about fine arts🎨, music, or literature. Education should be intrinsically worthwhile to enlighten the human spirit🧘 and enhance cultural appreciation regardless of the financial payoffs.

Although it's true that education makes students more liberal in their political views (especially for immigrants), it is a microscopic effect that is modest on average. If some parents think colleges are an ultra-effective indoctrination machine for turning normal American kids into social justice warriors, they are wrong.

Look at the K-12 curriculum; the kids are being told to recite poetries, memorize history timelines, and draw posters. Come on! How can those meaningless tasks enrich their life? If you walk into a random classroom, how many students have a face of bored-out-of-my-mind🥱? Parents are paying expensive tuition fees for their kids to attend school to survive.

Despite all the effort schools have put into inspiring students about citizenship, when it comes to findings of what an average American adult knows about basic facts of civics, history, and science, the result is next to nothing.

People appreciate their own curiosity. If someone has a sincere affection for Shakespeare's plays, that's great! Then reading novels can of course be a part of their curriculum. But it should be up to a voluntary choice, which seldom happens in school.


Education is a system in the U.S. that gets little criticism, but in reality, it's broken and socially wasteful. Education has to be either useful or enjoyable, but I see neither in the current system. The things we are being taught in school are inapplicable in the real world, graduates are avoiding entering the workforce by continuing their higher education even if they don't like what they learn, and taxpayers are suffering from legal duties to fund the system...

I hope one day, the situation can get better with a system reform – degrees won't be the singlehanded measurement that defines one's competence for the job. Enthusiasts should be able to find a job in their domains without the need to attain a college diploma. And lastly, more students can express their love for learning instead of worrying about the next school day.

"I loved my time here! I learned lots of things that helped me later in my career..."