A recent report from The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution examines several important questions about education’s economic power and includes some useful analyses and interesting conclusions. Its analysis, however, oversimplifies the importance of college degrees in boosting the economy, while rejecting the widely held view that education can substantially reduce economic inequality.
Marvin Lazerson and Ryan Pfleger reviewed Increasing Education: What it Will and Will Not Do for Earnings and Earnings Inequality for the Think Twice think tank review project. The review is published by the National Education Policy Center, housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education.
Dr. Lazerson is a professor of higher education policy at Central European University, Budapest, Hungary, and an emeritus professor, University of Pennsylvania. Ryan Pfleger is a doctoral candidate in Educational Foundations, Policy, and Practice at the University of Colorado Boulder.
The Hamilton Project report discusses three commonly held propositions about education’s economic power: (a) education is the critical factor in creating economic prosperity; (b) college and advanced degrees increase the earning power of individuals; and (c) a broad base of increased educational attainment will narrow income inequality. It asserts that the first proposition is true and that the second proposition is accurate, especially at the middle-income-and-below range. The report finds the third proposition inaccurate, concluding that a significant increase in educational attainment is not likely to significantly decrease wage inequality.
Lazerson and Pfleger praise as “illuminating” the report’s empirically based simulation that projects what would happen if an additional 10 percent of the population suddenly received college degrees. They note, however, that the analysis has important limitations. There is little direct evidence in the report to show that increasing educational attainment is, as the authors contend, “the most effective and direct way” to improve economic prosperity. Also, the report’s data are drawn only from males and no attention is paid to how income gains differ across gender, race, field of study, labor-market conditions, and institutional reputation.
The reviewers stress that no data analysis is provided in the report to support claims about the relative effectiveness of education compared to other ways to address economic problems. Claiming that the primary solution to a wide array of economic problems is to improve “human capital,” the report perpetuates a problematic myth that undervalues alternative ways to address poverty and economic insecurity. Indeed the assumption of the knowledge society narrative, that everything depends upon more education, may itself be flawed.
Though the report’s policy conclusions about education are important, economic and political actions are critical as well in closing income and social gaps. As the authors write, “[u]sing schooling as a quick fix for economic problems is not going to do it.”