Education Is Just Another Issue

In his piece about DC’s failed school voucher program, David Leonhardt had this to say:

[E]ducation isn’t just another issue. It is the most powerful force for accelerating economic growth, reducing poverty and lifting middle-class living standards. Well-educated adults earn much more, live longer and are happier than poorly educated adults. When researchers try to tease out whether education does much to cause these benefits, the answer appears to be yes.

Two things here.

First, the poverty part I’ve bolded is just wildly untrue. The most powerful force for reducing poverty in a rich country like the US is distributive policy. I’ve written on this dozens of times before, so I won’t belabor the point here. But let me give one example.

We could, in an instant, eliminate extreme child poverty, cut deep child poverty by 50 percent, and cut overall child poverty by 40 percent by implementing a $250/month universal child benefit program that would have a fiscal cost of less than 0.5 percent of GDP. How long do you think it would take higher overall educational attainment to accomplish that? Would it ever?

Second, Leonhardt’s proof that education delivers the goods does not actually show that at all. He links to a prior write up he did of a study that compared individuals who barely got into college to those who barely failed to get into college. The study showed that the individuals who barely got in did substantially better in life than the ones who barely failed to get in. Leonhardt quickly concludes from this both that it is the college education that is responsible for the gain and, implicitly, that this effect is universalizable such that you could push more and more people through college and the result would just be more and more people getting more and more good jobs.

But the study does not support these conclusions.

An alternative explanation for why those who barely get into college do so much better than those who barely fail to get into college is that education credentials are used to filter individuals for later job placement. If this is true, it is not that the education caused new good jobs to come into existence that the college-attenders then occupied. Rather, it is that the college-attender’s credentials made them out-compete the non-attender for the scarce number of good jobs that exist. That is to say, the education of the attenders gave them positional gains that allowed them to enter the labor market at a higher spot than the non-attenders.

And, no, this is not a fanciful alternative explanation. It is one of the most prominent arguments made by those who criticize education optimists like Leonhardt. And it is obviously true, at least in some cases. For instance, people who get law degrees have much higher incomes than those without them. But even Leonhardt would certainly admit that giving everyone a legal education would not usher in a country whose labor market purely consisted of highly-paid people suing one another for stuff. Yet that is precisely the reasoning Leonhardt works off of when talking about college education as a whole.

Despite what folks like Leonhardt tell you, education is not the centerpiece of all that is good in the world. It is not the universal salve for all that ails society. This is a bizarre rhetorical strategy education reformers have adopted to inflate the importance of their political project. But it’s bogus. Education is just another issue.

  • rsj

    Thank you. We are living in a world in which the good jobs are shrinking. Employers can pick the best for each job, and so you see jobs that were previously done by someone with just a high school education or an associates now requires a college degree, and jobs that used to require a B.S. now require an M.S. or more. This does not mean that in order to do the job, you need this level of education, it means in order to *get* the job you need an ever increasing level of education. The only reason for this is the number of good jobs are shrinking while the number of people with degrees is going up. It is 100% a sorting phenomenon.

    Then people look at that and say “well, see how important education is! We need more of it to create good jobs!”. It’s absolutely crazy. It is not beneficial to require more and more years of education to do the same job, it’s the cruel result of our labor markets. The more we hype/subsidize education, the more educational requirements for good jobs will increase.

  • carolannie

    Exactly right. I have had a running battle with C-suite people who think they get better IT people if the employees have a college education. I prefer to hire people with the right education or experience. The degree is meaningless if a person has no skills, and they often don’t get the skills from going to school.

  • johnshaplin

    Distributive policy is at the core of poverty but that the advantage of a college degree is ‘just positional’ is kind of a weak argument, at least from the viewpoint of individuals seeking to maximize their own opportunities in a wildly inegalitarian economy.

  • HBO CFO of Grits

    I think that’s his point though? Education *does* help individuals seeking to maximize their own opportunities in a wildly inegalitarian economy, but only relative to those who, whether or not they want to maximize their own opportunities, are relatively less *able* to access or complete education; it doesn’t help *everyone* seeking to maximize their own opportunities. It’s not a rising tide lifting all boats, as Leonhardt implies, but a positional tool to lift up some boats at the expense of others.

  • JW Mason

    Agree completely.

    An interesting question is why this idea is so attractive. Maybe it’s just, as you say, that people who for whatever reason have picked education as their thing want to inflate its importance. But I think there’s also an ideological function — turned around, this is an argument that the people who have high income/status jobs deserve them. If education reliably boosts earnings, it’s easier to believe that higher earnings just reflect better education.

  • Whenever anyone expresses faith that “the jobs will come,” whether via education or via the performance of some other ritual, ask where the additional demand for labor is going to come from. If they say “economic growth,” ask them to demonstrate why it is that the level of economic growth will more than offset the combined effects of a growing population and a less labor-intensive economy. Since I’m not a primitivist or doomer, I’m willing to remain agnostic over whether a growing economy per se is necessarily a pyramid scheme, but certainly the idea that economic growth is the royal road to full employment is.

    I’m all for education, but independently of whether it is conducive to either economic growth or the increasingly unrelated phenomenon of job growth. I’m pro-education because education can make life more enjoyable. I insist that’s reason enough.