NEPC Review: Increasing Education: What it Will and Will Not Do for Earnings and Earnings Inequality (The Hamilton Project, March 2015)
A recent report discusses three commonly held propositions about education’s economic power: 1) education is the critical factor in creating economic prosperity; 2) college degrees increase earning power; and 3) increasing educational attainment will narrow income inequality. The report endorses the first two propositions but finds the third inaccurate, concluding that a significant increase in educational attainment is not likely to significantly decrease wage inequality. The use of an empirically based simulation to project what would happen if an additional 10 percent of the population suddenly received college degrees is illuminating. However, the analysis has important limitations. There is little evidence provided to show that increasing educational attainment is, as the authors contend, “the most effective and direct way” to improve economic prosperity. The data are drawn only from males and no attention is paid to how income gains differ across race, field of study, labor-market conditions, and institutional reputation. Critically, no analysis compares education with other approaches to economic problems. Claiming that the primary solution to important economic problems is to improve “human capital,” the report perpetuates a problematic myth that undervalues alternative approaches to poverty and economic insecurity. Indeed the knowledge society narrative, assuming that everything depends upon more education, may itself be flawed.