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.