But All the Other Countries Are Doing It!

Another intriguing Kevin Carey question:

The United States has historically been a leader among most nations in adopting policies designed to induce large numbers of people to pursue college degrees and to reduce the price of doing so. And the United States has the most productive, well-educated workforce in the world. In recent decades, many of our biggest economic competitors have adopted policies designed to cut into our lead in college education and produce more graduates and degree holders. As near as I can tell, none of our competitors are adopting the opposite strategy. Are all of these nations, including ours, just massively wrong about all of this?

 This exchange is supposed to be about Murray, not me, but I can’t resist.  As I argued in an earlier Cato Unbound, as well as in my book, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, inefficient policies are often popular because systematically biased beliefs about economics are widespread.  In the book, admittedly, I picked the “low-hanging fruit”—popular policies like protectionism and price controls that almost all economically literate people think are a bad idea.  In this forum, I’m making the stronger argument that even economists overestimate the social return to education.  Why?  Because education is more about showing off than building human capital.  I may be wrong, but the fact that “all the other countries are copying us” hardly shows that we’ve got it right.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s provocative lead essay, the American Enterprise Institute’s Charles Murray draws from his new book, Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality, to argue against America’s obsession with the four-year BA degree. Murray argues that the BA “wreaks harm on a majority of young people, is grotesquely inefficient as a source of information for employers, and is implicated in the emergence of a class-riven America.” Murray contends that vocational training and a new regime of certification testing would provide a superior alternative to a college degree for many high school grads.

Response Essays

  • Economist Pedro Carneiro of University College London — an authority on the relationship between education, human capital, and wages — agrees with much of Murray’s argument, but questions its relevance. Some people may be making a mistake in pursuing a BA, but it’s not a very big mistake, Carneiro says. “For most of those enrolling in college, a BA has a good expected return, but there is some risk,” and not notably more risk than with other investments. The real worry, Carneiro argues, is that stagnation in college enrollments “may cause problems for [economic] growth in the years to come.”

  • George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan agrees with Charles Murray’s claims that not everyone is suited to college, that four years is too long, and that few career-relevant skills are learned there. But then what explains the wage premium for college grads? Caplan notes that Murray flirts with a “signaling” model but argues he needs to take it more seriously. But then why haven’t certification test already caught on, Caplan wonders. Why don’t employers already cut out the college middle man and directly hire top high school grads? “An unfortunate implication of the signaling model is that cutting the BA down to size will be a lot harder than Murray thinks. As far as employers are concerned, the BA works.”

  • Kevin Carey, research and policy manager for Education Sector, argues that the “mass production of bachelor’s degrees” in the 20th century gave the United States one of the world’s best-educated labor forces, and all signs point to the stunning success of mass higher education. Carey says that Murray “does not come close” to showing that the “BA is the work of the devil.” If an alternative system of certification testing made sense, Carey argues, we would expect to see it already, but we don’t because “employers value the bachelor’s degree.” The flexibility of the American system, which allows students to get a good general education without committing to narrow vocational training, is one of its strengths. And so many drop out of college, Cary maintains, not because they are unprepared or unable to benefit, but because the academic environment and teaching are often discouragingly low. “The bachelor’s degree represents the best of American opportunity,” Carey writes. “We need to make it better, not tear it down.”