By George Leef

One of the most deeply ingrained beliefs in Americans is that education is nearly always and without limit a good investment. That belief explains how the percentage of high school graduates who enroll in college kept steadily increasing from the end of World War II until just a few years ago, even as the cost of attending rose precipitously.

People went into debt for college credentials of dubious value, but it was supposedly “good debt” because, said wise people, education pays.

Of late, that belief has come under attack. Among the attackers is the well-known public intellectual Malcolm Gladwell, author of books like The Tipping Point and Blink.

In this interview published by CNBC, Gladwell declared, “The amount of money that’s wasted on meaningless education in the U.S. never ceases to amaze me.”

One form of that waste is the huge amount that Americans donate to colleges and universities. “People who give money to wealthy schools like Ivy League schools basically should just burn their money instead,” Gladwell said.

He is more right about that than he knows. Not only do donations to the likes of Harvard and Princeton help gild their lilies, but the vast endowments such universities have helps insulate them from the consequences of follies committed by their top officials – for example the cost of Title IX suits by students wrongfully accused of sexual assault and suits by students who have been discriminated against based on their race so the school can have more “diversity.”

The other way we waste money on education, according to Gladwell, is the huge expenditures on tuition and other college fees. Quoth he, “The notion of paying $60,000, $70,000 in tuition for a year of university seems, to me, crazy.” Those payments, he points out, are preventing graduates from buying homes and making productive investments with their money.

Gladwell is right about that, but there is more to the waste than just the diversion of money from future housing and investments. The country also suffers economic waste from the misallocation of resources in the present – we have far too many people doing jobs in the higher education sector (quite a few faculty members and a small army of administrators) who contribute little or nothing of value.

What’s the solution? How can the U.S. break out of wasteful spending for college credentials? He suggests that “We should pay more attention to making the public education option truly viable again.”

I don’t disagree with that. For many American students, their K-12 years in public schools are largely squandered. They graduate with poor skills in the basics (reading, writing, math) and scant knowledge about the world they live in (history, economics, culture). Worse yet, they imbibe a mindset of entitlement that stems from the reigning philosophy in most schools that the most important thing is for students to have high self-esteem. If that could change so that students now graduated with the same levels of skill and knowledge that they did fifty or more years ago, there would be little need for them to go to college to prove their employability. But if Gladwell thinks we can change that just by spending more money, he’s badly mistaken.

Nevertheless, to have someone of Gladwell’s stature saying that we are wasting lots of money on education is much to the good.