Thursday, April 2, 2015

What Education Won't Fix

A newly released quicky study from the Hamilton Project reaches some conclusions about what education can-- and can't-- do for the economic situation in our country.

The study, by Brad Hershbein, Melissa S. Kearney, and Lawrence Summers, tries to take a look at what effects would actually follow an increase in the number of college grads. Folks keep saying that if we got everyone a college degree, flowers would bloom, riches would flow, and the economy would be fixed. The study says, not exactly.

It's an interesting team-up. Hershbein and Kearney are from the school of thought that to get widespread economic prosperity, "it will be imperative to increase the skill level of many in the population." But Summers recently noted in a Washington Post interview “to suggest that improving education is the solution to inequality is, I think, an evasion.” So this is not exactly Thomas Piketty trying to once again prove that all we need is more college-educated people and the world will be perfect.

The premise for this "empirical simulation" was waving a magic wand so that 10% of the men who don't have a bachelor's degree suddenly did (they assure us that focusing on men was not a sexist oversight, but a recognition that these un-degreed men are the ones who took the biggest hit in recent decades). They also allow, toward the end, that increasing educational attainment could also mean making K-12 better, not just sending everyone to college.

Then they ran a bunch of magical econoformulas to see how earnings distribution would change. I'll tell the truth-- I can't quite follow all the economist gobbledeegook in this paper (and it's only five pages long, so I'm going to go ahead and blame me). But I'm pretty sure that the exercise involves redistributing the earnings that are already out there and not, as some proponents do, imagining that college degrees automatically make more money appear in the system.

The study offers three bottom lines:

1) Increasing the educational attainment of men without a college degree will increase their average earnings and their likelihood of being employed.

I am not sure what part of the magic formulae supports this conclusion. It seems as if so many imponderables have been lumped together-- will a guy with a BA in Art History be better employed than a high school grad who's a certified welder? One thing the researchers don't seem to have considered at all-- the degree to which college attainment, employment, and earnings are all a function of the economic status of their family of origin (consider the depressing research suggesting that poor college grads don't do substantially better than rich high school dropouts, or the John Hopkins Baltimore study that suggests family and neighborhood trump everything).

All that said, I'm willing to accept that in general, a college degree is more helpful than not.

2) Increasing educational attainment will not significantly change overall earnings inequality.

Simple explanation here. A college degree does not get you any closer to being in the 1%, and the gulf between the 1% and everybody else is so large, that shuffling everybody else around just doesn't matter. Put another way, if I have seven out of eight pieces of pie, it really doesn't matter how the rest of you slice up the remaining piece, because I still have seven pieces.

3) Increasing educational attainment will, however, reduce inequality in the bottom half of the earnings distribution, largely by pulling up the earnings of those near the 25th percentile.

In other words, if these folks are correct (see above for my argument about why they might not be), increasing educational attainment will not affect the rich, the pretty rich, or the middle, but will make some of the poor less poor. This dovetails with the notion that much of ed reform is not so much about fixing education as it is about "fixing" poor kids (because if we fix them with education stuff, then we don't have to take responsibility for any other causes or effects of poverty).

As with much education researchy stuff, I'm not sure if we've actually proven anything here. But the observation that educational attainment will not affect the largest chunk of income inequality in this country is worth mulling over.

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