Signals vs Causes: Education

In this excellent EconTalk podcast, EconLogger Bryan Caplan discusses his upcoming book on education. He closes with this:

…the private return [of education] is high is really a very bad argument for pouring more money on.

Now, the other point, as we were saying, the return that you should be looking at in terms of this argument of not being able to borrow against your future earnings–what you are looking at is return for the marginal people who are just on the edge of going or not going. And as we’ve seen, the return for those people is actually… quite mediocre. And then finally if you adjust for ability and everything else, really I would say that once you appreciate signaling you realize that, so we have subsidized education way past the point of [?] returns. So by my calculations, actually, the social return to education is now quite negative.

And it would be a much better policy to drastically scale it back, so rather than encouraging more people to go, I think it’s better to discourage them from going or at least to encourage them less. So in fact–so, the biggest policy implication that’s going to come out of my book is we just have way too much education. I call this the white elephant in the room. There are way too many people going to school, maybe not from their own selfish point of view, but certainly from a social point of view to go and pour more money on this really is just throwing gasoline on the fire. And we need to do less of it.

I agree. Caplan’s argument is that we college education isn’t the cause of higher income, rather it’s just become the customary path that people with above average ambition and ability take and along the way we’ve mistaken it for the cause of that higher income.

It’s similar to the mistake ‘we’ made with housing. We thought owning a house made people responsible, so we made it easier to irresponsible people to own homes. We learned the hard way that owning a home was a marker of a responsible person, not a cause.

Now, we’re learning the same about college education as many kids graduate and find themselves deep in student loan debt and no higher income job to pay it off.

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