In his first address to Congress President Obama argued that the US needs to put far more people through college so that the economy will remain competitive with those of other nations. He set forth a goal of again having “the highest proportion of college graduates in the world”.
Failure to raise the educational attainment level, on the other hand, “is a prescription for economic decline”.
The President’s thinking is shared by many others. Economic success tends to correlate with education. People (and countries) with little education are mostly poor, while people (and countries) with very advanced education are mostly wealthy. Therefore, it’s tempting to jump to the conclusion that partaking of more education will boost an individual’s income and that a country can increase prosperity by “investing” more in education.
Resist that temptation, which is based on fallacious reasoning.
True, education correlates with prosperity and economic growth, but one of the crucial lessons of logic is that correlation does not necessarily imply causation. We must apply it here.
People who have high intelligence and ambition often earn college and advanced degrees. Sometimes that formal education is important in their later success, but many say that their education had very little to do with it. Conversely, some extremely successful people dropped out of college or never attended at all. And as those ridiculous Occupy Wall Street protests taught us, huge numbers of college graduates are unemployed or employed only in jobs that don’t call for anything more than basic trainability.
Conclusion: Having a college education is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for personal success. Many people prosper without college, and many who have BA degrees or higher nevertheless struggle in low-paying jobs.
What that means for nations is that it isn’t possible to generate economic progress just by “investing” in education.
Don’t take my word for it. I recommend reading the book by British education professor Alison Wolf, Does Education Matter? Wolf shows that when governments attempt to speed up economic progress by spending more on formal education, they mostly squander resources.
One example Wolf gives is Egypt, which “invested” heavily in higher education. That did not lead to rising economic output, however, because little of the students’ learning at their universities co-ordinated with the skills and knowledge needed for entrepreneurship and improving efficiency in the Egyptian economy. Instead, it created a mass of people with university degrees who expected high-paying jobs that did not and could not exist.
The key point is that formal education doesn’t necessarily lead to knowledge and skills. That was true in Egypt and is equally true with many American college graduates. Hordes of academically weak and disengaged kids have been lured into college with the idea that getting a degree—any degree, from anywhere—means they’ll enjoy a hefty gain in earnings. Unfortunately, many of them coast through without adding anything to their human capital. They may have a degree, but that and $3 will get them a coffee at Starbucks, where they’re apt to work. People are good at figuring out how to maximise their human capital, but government inducements to take certain kinds of approved education leads many to waste time and money.
Instead of boosting the nation’s productivity, that depresses it, just as make-work jobs and needless government projects do.
The best education policy: Leave it to individual choice in a free market.
George Leef, a Forbes contributor, is the director of research at the John W Pope Center for higher education policy
(This story appears in the 07 February, 2014 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)