Tyler Cowen has an excellent post smacking down right-of-center skeptics about the value of education. I have to say that I think it’s strange that the pure signaling model of education is so popular among libertarian college professors. How does Bryan Caplan’s belief that attending college imparts no useful skills impact his pedagogical methods when students take his undergraduate econometrics class? But after running down the evidence, Cowen gets to what he thinks is the real puzzle:
The real puzzle is how large measured marginal returns to education are consistent with the continuing observed failures of the American educational system. Why does the low-hanging fruit persist or is it low-hanging at all? The traditional liberal view is that further educational subsidies are needed, but a possible alternative is that some people simply do not wish to step across to the other side of the divide to a “better life,” at least as defined by middle class values and income statistics. Or is there some other hypothesis? Whichever way you cut it, a big improvement in this area does not seem about to happen and arguably we are moving in the opposite direction. Whatever gains are there “in the data,” we don’t seem able or willing to capture them.
For one thing “more subsidies needed” and “some people simply do not wish to step across” seem to me to be pretty similar ideas. If present-biased and moderately ill-informed teenagers are failing to familiarize themselves with the academic literature on the long-term returns to education and focus more on their own schooling, then steps to make education less costly (which might include subsidies as well as other types of reform) should be beneficial.
At any rate, while I don’t want this to be taken the wrong way, I think the cause of the problem here is the intersection of feminism and capitalism. Prior to 1970 or so, overwhelming social and politician coercion was brought to bear on women to overwhelmingly focus their time on childrearing and to severely limit the range of occupations they could enter. One of those occupations was, of course, teaching. This all constituted a giant implicit subsidy to the school system. In some countries, such as Sweden and Finland, the feminist turn was accompanied by big-time family leave policies, big investments in preschool, and substantial structural reforms to K-12 education. But America just kind of welcomed women to the world of competitive labor markets and left it at that. Under the circumstances, I think it’s slightly surprising that we’ve managed to avoid actively backsliding in educational attainment. Meanwhile, the overall trajectory of the welfare state in America has shifted in favor of transfers to the elderly and disabled even though the facts on the ground suggest a shift in favor of children and families. But if the feminist revolution was sort of the origin of the problem here, it’s also a big part of the solution. Taking care of and educating children is a socially vital function, one that was traditionally and unfairly assigned to unpaid or underpaid women, and we need to actually step up to the plate with preschool, family leave, as well as much more focused efforts to re-raise the average quality of teachers were in K-12 classrooms.