Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Belated Happy Birthday, Abe

By Richard Vedder

Abe Lincoln was 198 years old yesterday, and has never looked better. In a world where we cancel classes for Martin Luther King's birthday but increasingly ignore Lincoln's and George Washington's, I thought I would put in a word for a man who once argued court cases less than a mile from my home in Illinois.

Lincoln's life is a lesson for modern higher education. Here is a man without much formal education, certainly nothing remotely equivalent to high school, much less college. Yet he showed an extraordinary command of the English language ("with malice toward none and charity toward all", etc.), masterful leadership qualities, courage, honesty, wisdom, vision, and integrity. He demonstrated in spades the qualities we claim that a college education will help inculcate.

Today, a very large part of the higher productivity of college graduates has nothing to do with what they learned in college. Bright, highly motivated, conscientious persons tend to go to college, while less bright, aimless, and irresponsible persons are unlikely to do so. As I have repeatedly said, in a world without colleges, the individuals who are today's college graduates would have earned substantially more than other persons anyhow. Charles Murray has demonstrated that repeatedly with his controversial but absolutely sound research relating to human intelligence.

I am not saying colleges are a waste of time and resources. But I am saying many of the claims made about the positive effects of education on our national economic development are overblown. And whiz kid Jonathan Leirer and I are rather consistently finding results that suggest that there are no positive correlations between incremental state government spending on universities and subsequent economic growth. We hope to present our results at a significant higher education conference that CCAP is helping the American Enterprise Institute put on in Washington on March 13.

There are no free lunches in this world. Resources used to fund colleges, including the human resources devoted to spending (increasingly) five or so productive years at them, could have been devoted to other tasks, making useful things. And the efficiency in the private sector where we make those "useful things" is much greater than in the relatively inefficient non-for-profit university sector. University spending is crowding out the production of many useful goods and services that may provide greater enhancement of our material prosperity than some of the resources we devote to higher education. This, coupled with more and more evidence that students are not even getting the traditional grounding in civic virtues that colleges historically have provided, makes me increasingly convinced that we are overinvested in higher education.

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