Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The Winters of Our Discontent

By Richard Vedder

Borrowing from Shakespeare's Richard the Third somehow seems appropriate for today's blog. A former student, Marcus Winters, got started at the Manhattan Institute a number of years ago with some assistance from me, and has become an important writer on American education. Most of what Marcus writes is perceptive, incisive, innovative. The world needs more Marcus Winters, and I am pleased to have played at least a modest role in the intellectual development of this fine young contributor to research that points the way towards the rationalization of American education.

But recently Marcus wrote a column attacking the notion promoted by Charles Murray, Matthew Crawford and yours truly, namely that there is a significant portion of the American population that should not go to traditional colleges and universities. His most important points seem to be that:

1) There are remarkable examples of students from disadvantaged backgrounds attending inner city schools who show a capacity to excel academically, developing the intellectual capacity and drive to succeed in college. Let us not simply write off a subset of the American population that has remarkable potential.

2) The continued rise in the college/high school wage differential demonstrates that college provides ever growing potential productivity gains for students and subsequent rising economic advantages. (The article makes other points, but let us comment on these two).

I will concede the first point; indeed, anyone who saw the 1988 movie Stand and Deliver about the remarkable math teaching of Jaime Escalante in the ghettos of Los Angeles knows that very often current approaches to teaching fail to push students to achieve their potential. Charter schools have improved the academic performances of meaningful numbers of students, as Marcus notes. But the reality is that the bulk of secondary education, particularly in low income areas, does not deliver these kinds of results. If the world were filled with great charter or private schools where Jaime Escalante-like teachers prevailed, I might reconsider my position on the suitability of students attending college. But that is not the way it is. Moreover, the 45 percent college dropout rate ---after six, not four years --is a sign that there are an awful lot of kids entering college who fail to achieve the objective of a degree.

I agree with Marcus that we need to restructure K-12 education, need to deep six the colleges of education, and perhaps do a few other things as well, but that is not the current world in which we operate.

In general, the gap between high school and college wages is greater than 30 years ago, as Marcus observes. But I think at least part of the reason for that is that the credentialing advantages of higher education received a huge boost from the 1960s civil rights legislation and subsequent court cases (e.g., Griggs v. Duke Power). As former sidekick Bryan O'Keefe and I observed in a study published in cooperation with the Pope Center in North Carolina, the differential started to surge within a few years of the Griggs decision. The differential increasingly reflects less real education-induced productivity gains and more the traits of college graduates that they genetically inherited or acquired through the family and K-12 education.

Also, a careful look at the data suggests that it is doubtful that there has been any significant upturn in the wage differential for women over the last 20 years --a group that constitutes a majority of college students. Also, even if the college/high school differential is increasing, the positive economic effects of that are offset at least in part, and very likely in whole, by sharply rising college costs. The rate of return on college depends not only on the income differential generated, but also on the cost (including opportunity cost of lost work) of the college investment.

I know of very bright college graduates today who are restaurant servers, tree trimmers (with a master's degree, yet), and mail carriers. There is nothing wrong with that, although one can question using public funds to promote such education. The notion that college degrees are needed to efficiently provide those tasks is simply not true. I also believe the expansion of college attendance has been accompanied by a watering down in college standards (a point made in a new book coming out authored by Rutgers scholar Jackson Toby), but one does not even need that argument to make the point that I have made, as have several others.

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