By Richard Vedder and Daniel L. Bennett
This is the 500th blog of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. We have come a long way in less than two years, and are proud of our growing presence in the higher education community. What began as an idea a couple of years ago has expanded into a center with growing research activities, increased media recognition, and growing respect from those who are deeply concerned about higher education in America.
We (specifically, Daniel Bennett, our newest "Whiz Kid") are producing estimates of "Educational Gini Coefficients," measures of the inequality in the attainment of education. The results are tentative, and we are even refining the measurement of inequality, dealing with moderate differences in reporting procedures over time, etc. With these qualifications in mind, we can say:
1. Over time, the average level of educational attainment of adult Americans has risen.
2. The inequality in attaining an education has fallen --the gap in formal education between the haves (those with advanced degrees) and the have-nots (those with little or no schooling) has narrowed. The unweighted average Gini coefficient for 1980 is .306, for 1990 is .257, and for 2000 is .236. A Gini of 0 means everyone has the same education; a Gini of 1 means one person has all the education and everyone else has nothing.
3. Variations in inequality between the states have likewise fallen dramatically over time, especially in the 1980s. Big geographic differences in the extent of educational equality are declining.
All of this is consistent with the American Dream --we have a nation of increasingly educated persons who are more and more similar in terms of educational attainment.
Yet going to school is merely an INPUT --time spent doing something. What is truly important are outcomes or output. What are people learning? Here the evidence is distinctly less favorable. Learning at the K-12 level is at best relatively stagnant over time if standardized tests are to be believed, and the U.S. students do at best a mediocre job relative to other nations on international tests. There is some evidence (e.g., the Intercollegiate Studies Institute Civic Literacy test) that college kids today are pretty ignorant of some basic core knowledge relating to our civic identity, and that learning during college is miniscule on average with respect to this factor. Is this a more general problem? We are not sure, but data from the National Survey of Student Engagement showing that students spent remarkably little time in class or studying are cause for concern. Are our colleges becoming non-rigorous country clubs for a mostly affluent population of persons transitioning between childhood and adulthood? Adding to the problem is the enormously high attrition rate --students who drop out of college.
Other data show that, for all the ostensible progress, that inequality of educational opportunity is still related to income and associated socioeconomic considerations. Some data show that educational participation among some groups (e.g., Hispanics) is not growing much over time. Rising college costs mean that, even if learning is increasing, on cost-benefit grounds the social rate of return of education may be stagnant or even falling.
As CCAP begins the next 500 in blogs, stay tuned for more on these and other topics relating to our universities.
Richard Vedder is Director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Distinguished Professor of Economics at Ohio University. Daniel L. Bennett is a Research Associate at CCAP and is finishing a masters degree in economics at Ohio University.