Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Getting Schooled

The month of May is traditional for college graduation, but June overwhelming is the month of choice for handing out high school diplomas at annoyingly named “commencements.” Even when I was 17 this was as groan-inducing for me as movies that end with the words “The Beginning.”

Yours Truly, a few Junes ago
High school is such a near-universal experience in the developed world that we tend to forget how recently in historical terms this wasn’t so. A few generations ago, high school was primarily for the elite – most often at private academies. Public or private, high school attendance was rare in the U.S. before 1870 at which time only 2% of 17-year-olds had any secondary education. The numbers slowly climbed over the next 30 years, but in 1900 still hadn’t topped 6%. None of my grandparents (all born between 1896 and 1900) attended high school. I doubt they ever considered it. Attitudes and school budgets were changing, though, and by the 1920s at least some high school became the experience of most teens in the U.S. Still, not until the 1930s did a majority actually graduate, thanks partly to stricter enforcement of truancy laws for those under 14: enforcement inspired less by ideals about education than by a Depression-era desire to keep teens from competing with adults in the labor force. By 1940 75% of young people earned a high school diploma. Because older generations mostly had not, however, it was not until well into the 1950s that the median education level for the adult population as a whole was higher than 8th grade.

Today nearly 90% of students finish high school, but high school has changed since the 1940s. Today, high schools almost universally provide a college-preparation course of study to all students. A college-prep study course was an option in public schools in the ‘40s, but most students took the far more practical business course of study. At right is an image of my father’s high school credit certificate that accompanied his diploma. (My father was not actually at his graduation on June 16, 1944, by the way; at that time he was on a Liberty Ship resupplying the Normandy beachhead, but Morristown High nonetheless graduated students who left school in the final year to join the military if they had accumulated enough credits.) How different is this list of credits from what students typically encounter in high school today? 

I use the word “encounter” rather than “learn” because what is forgotten the moment an exam is passed cannot be considered learned. A study from the University of East Anglia in the UK found that students remembered only 40 percent of their high school studies by the first week at a university – and the study tested with multiple choice exams in which the correct answer was present. Said lead researcher Harriet Jones: “What our research shows is that students are arriving at university with fantastic A-Level grades, but having forgotten much of what they actually learned for their exams.” U.S. studies have similar or worse findings. Despite a tripling of school budgets in inflation-adjusted terms in the past 40 years there has been no improvement at all in student proficiency at the time of high school graduation, and much of that proficiency is lost over the following summer anyway. Half of all students entering community colleges require remedial education. Across all colleges and universities the average college student reads at an 8th grade level: only slightly better than the U.S. population as a whole.

Truth be told, the majority of adults retain and get by – often quite well – on 8th grade level math and literacy skills just as their great grandparents did. This is as true of college graduates as of high school graduates. Obviously there are fields of study in which this is not true: students of engineering, medicine, and various hard sciences really do acquire knowledge useful and necessary to their future careers. Graduates in these fields make up a smallish minority (14%) of the total however. Viewed purely in career terms, the more typical college grad learns nothing new at college that is applicable to later jobs; nearly all the important aspects of their jobs are learned on the job. Even well-paid professionals commonly let high school (never mind college) level skills atrophy if they aren’t used in daily practice, as most aren’t.

So, is sending people to school past 8th grade a waste of money? In a purely economic sense, yes and no. For an individual average student in the world as it is, a diploma is an extremely wise investment. Bryan Caplan, professor of economics at George Mason University, makes this point in The Case against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money. For an average graduate – comparing him or her with someone who tests the same in every way but lacks the sheepskin – a diploma is never a waste of time and money. A Bachelor’s degree will boost lifetime earnings by 70% over someone with just a high school diploma, who in turn earns 50% more than high school dropouts. The reason is “signaling.” Employers use the diploma as a quick way of ascertaining if prospective employees have the skills and temperament to do the job: they successfully completed four or more years of at least modestly intellectual drudgery at school, the thinking goes, so they probably can do as much at work. This is especially true today when completing school is a social expectation. Many occupational licenses and many employers currently require college degrees even though most of those jobs do not actually require skills beyond a competent 8th-grader. For this reason, while pursuing a diploma makes sense for an individual, Caplan argues that, for society, pushing everyone to get one (at enormous cost) does not. The increase in college graduates in particular has devalued their degrees so that many now seek jobs that in the 1950s were held by people who didn’t finish high school: “If everyone got a college degree, the result would not be great jobs for all, but runaway credential inflation.” He is keener on vocational schools, which demonstrably pay earnings dividends to the individual and to society at large as well.

I’m more sanguine about education than Caplan – certainly through high school anyway. A lot of students are not average, for one thing, and it’s not always clear which ones unless we expose them all to school. For another, not every consideration is economic. Having some understanding of science and culture is essential to becoming a well-rounded human being. Ideally, high school provides a framework for future self-education in these matters – self-education being the only real kind of education there is. College can reinforce that framework. Neither is absolutely necessary to this task, but the schools and colleges can make it a whole lot easier. As for the majority of philistine graduates who don’t give a whit about academics and who will forget it all in a year…well, at least they had the chance.

I’ll be in the audience of no high school graduations this year, but at least there is one Commencement I will be celebrating tomorrow without any groans at the word: the onset of summer. Happy Solstice!

Nat King Cole - You Don't Learn That in School (1946)


  1. Having some understanding of science and culture is essential to becoming a well-rounded human being. Do you ever wonder why the GOP is so anti-science? Do you think it is strictly political and they prefer to keep us on fossil, coal fuels? It seems to be a giant step backwards. I saw Mitch McConnell talking to Bill Maher last weekend and he just said there just isn't enough evidence, maybe give it 50 years. Of course he'll be dead by then and have taken enough graft money from lobbyist to fund his heirs. Then too, what's the point of no return and not being able to correct something?

    1. There is a tendency among people of all political stripes to believe only such data (or interpretations of data) that fit their pre-existing wishes, whether on climate change or, say, GMOs. Believers in the paranormal are found across the spectrum as are anti-vaccinators. I’m not sure how tractable such prejudgments ever are. Michael Shermer (frequent writer for The Skeptical Inquirer and for Scientific American with moderate leftist sympathies) often says much the same: Sciam article