Mason professors debate on government subsidized education

Professors Bryan Caplan and Steven Pearlstein debate economics, government, and education (photo courtesy of Alex Perry).
Professors Bryan Caplan and Steven Pearlstein debate economics, government, and education (photo courtesy of Alex Perry).

On Wednesday, Oct. 24, Bryan Caplan and Steven Pearlstein debated at the Johnson Center Cinema about whether the government should stop promoting and subsidizing higher education.

This debate was a follow-up to the flash debate on Wednesday, Oct. 17, that covered the same topic. Both the flash debate and the Johnson Center debate were arranged by the George Mason University Economics Society. 

"I knew it was a topic that students should find to be interesting," said Caplan, a Mason professor of economics. The New York Times said his book "The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Polices" was "the best political book" of 2007.

Pearlstein, a Robinson professor of public and international affairs, is a Pulitzer-Prize winning business and economics columnist for the Washington Post.

Olivia Gonzalez, a senior economics major and a member of the GMU Economics Society, attended the event with her own opinion on subsidizing higher education.

"I don't think the government handles the money efficiently," Gonzalez said. "I think it can be improved."

Gonzalez’s opinion was shared by Caplan, who argued against government subsidies for higher education. Part of his argument was that the current system for higher education doesn't teach useful "vocational skills” and that it serves more as a signaling tool for the job market.

"You show the labor market that you have the right stuff, and doors will open for you," Caplan said. "Even a useless degree sends a signal to employers that you are smart, hardworking and a conformist."

Caplan admitted that higher education teaches "ideas and culture,” but that there are students that are not interested in either. He disagrees with "spending half a trillion dollars on the student that doesn't want it."

Pearlstein, who argued for these government subsidies, admitted that he agreed with many of Caplan's points. He agreed that "students learn little and forget” and that "most of the value is that it is a signal to employers."

Pearlstein disagreed, however, with Caplan's argument that higher education doesn't teach "vocational skills," and instead argued that it provides an invaluable foundation for the workplace.

"It provides the intellectual foundation to learn a vocation and it makes it possible for you [to learn] that vocation in the workplace," Pearlstein said.

Pearlstein also said that he supports subsidies because people would not be able to pay the high rates of market loans without them. He also cited the "millions of taxpayers" that voted to support subsidies as evidence towards their "positive externalities.”

A vote at the end of the questions and answers section showed that 16 of the 18 members of the audience agreed with Caplan's argument, including Gonzalez.

Rachel Ellis, the President of the GMU Economics Society, thought that the debate met the desired goal.

"Our goal is to [be educational and] fun," Ellis said.

The Economics Society organizes events such as this debate twice a month, with speakers from Mason’s faculty and from outside the university. More information can be found at their website:

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