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Every news item seems to contain a Clarion Call for us to wake up and “do something” about the latest tragedy. And what is the tragedy du jour?

It’s the decline in educational attainment of 25-29 years olds as compared to the educational attainment of adults aged 30 and up. Let’s assume this data is actually relevant and important. Why do I need to make that assumption? For starters, is the relevant comparison looking at the educational attainment of 25-29 year olds in 2006 with those above 30 in 2006? Or is a better comparison to look at the educational attainment of 25-29 year olds in 2006 with the attainment of 25-29 year olds in some past year. These are two vastly different questions- particulalry when I look at the students walking around my building and realize that some of them may already be in their 30s … isn’t it true that the demographic make-up of college students has changed over time? Another nit is that looking at average educational attainment is not the same as looking at the accumulation of human capital – they are surely correlated, but to what extent I am not sure.

Is this decline a tragedy? Charles Murray would not be sounding the alarm bell:

The proposition that I hereby lay before the house is that the BA degree is the work of the devil. It 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.

Before explaining why, let me specify a few things that I am not arguing.

I am not complaining that too many people are getting education after high school. On the contrary, I am in favor of education after high school for almost all young people.

I am not denying that that possession of a BA is statistically associated with higher income across the life span, and that this economic benefit persists after controlling for measures of human capital (e.g., IQ scores), field of study, and other background variables.

I am not disparaging the value of a liberal education, classically understood. On the contrary, I think far too few young people are exposed to the stuff of a liberal education (that’s the last I’m going to say on that issue in this presentation. There’s a long discussion of liberal education in the book.

Pedro Carneiro responds:

Each of us has different skills giving us a comparative advantage in a given occupation, and acquiring a college education is not everyone’s comparative advantage. This is a central component of Murray’s argument, and one with which I agree completely.

But he goes on to argue that the problem as stated by Murray is simply not that important, even if he agrees with the premise. The problem as he sees it is that the rates of return to investing higher education are as large as the returns to doing anything else (what that “else” is, we never know), so we should be surprised that more people are not interested in taking advantage of this. After all, when house prices seemed to have the prospect of increasing without end, millions of Americans rushed into the real estate market. So he does view “under-education” as a problem.

I have three of simple hypotheses and one comment (one of which Carneiro makes at the end):

  1. Maybe the rate of return on more informal methods of acquiring human capital have been increasing. This is empirically testable. For example, has the rise of the internet and various new technologies made it easier for individuals to accumulate the knowledge and skills to become more productive?
  2. Despite the massive increase in the consumption value of higher education, perhaps there has been a secular shift in the displeasure students (and their families) get from attending college today. This is not as easily testable.
  3. Perhaps students are systematically less prepared to successfuly attend and complete college than their earlier cohorts were. This is testable, and James Heckman and Carneiro have done some outstanding work addressing this question. My anecdotal evidence (i.e. I teach college students for a living) is that this factor is grossly under-appreciated … it is sort of like the crazy Aunt in the attic explanation. I am fairly young, but my impression is that despite the rising SAT scores of students attending colleges, a large majority of students are seriously underprepared to engage in critical thinking, logical reasoning, clear writing and simple mathematics.

The comment … I am not sure I favor public policy doing anything about this, with the exception of encouraging enormous amounts of skilled foreigners into the United States. It seems to be conventional wisdom that we have a “skilled worker” shortage in this country, and that for some reason Americans are not getting themselves trained appropriately. Well then we can kill two birds with one stone by having a more open immigration policy – we “fill” the high-skill jobs that need to be filled, and we might light a competitive fire under the behinds of American natives by doing this as well.

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