Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Reinventing Education

Following up on his prior editorial, David Brooks again reminds us of the importance of education. To his credit, this time he doesn't try to find partisan advantage in the Obama campaign's platform as compared to McCain's silence:
Third, it’s worth noting that both sides of this debate exist within the Democratic Party. The G.O.P. is largely irrelevant. If you look at Barack Obama’s education proposals — especially his emphasis on early childhood - you see that they flow naturally and persuasively from this research. (It probably helps that Obama and Heckman are nearly neighbors in Chicago). McCain’s policies seem largely oblivious to these findings. There’s some vague talk about school choice, but Republicans are inept when talking about human capital policies.
There truly is a tension between Brooks and his party on these issues. While Brooks enjoys mocking "big government" programs as much as any other Republican, he appears to have his own vision for a similar set of programs, particularly programs directed at children from birth through the age of five (focusing on "motivation levels, emotional stability, self-control and sociability"), but followed by improved K-12 education, (as you might expect) a community service requirement for young people (even though he has never participated in the type of public service he advocates), and universal college education. His nod to conservatism is that he deems his programs investments in "human capital".

Brooks puts himself squarely at odds with that icon of conservative education policy, Charles Murray. He's not locked into Murray's ideology in which your IQ (which he, of course, links to race) dictates your fate, college may become an irrelevancy, but the kids he deems intellectually inferior can still make a good living by learning skilled trades and working for rich people. Brooks rejects the idea that IQ, or at least future academic performance, cannot be substantially improved by strengthening families and homes, and providing a strong educational framework for early childhood development.
Heckman points out that big gaps in educational attainment are present at age 5. Some children are bathed in an atmosphere that promotes human capital development and, increasingly, more are not. By 5, it is possible to predict, with depressing accuracy, who will complete high school and college and who won’t.

I.Q. matters, but Heckman points to equally important traits that start and then build from those early years: motivation levels, emotional stability, self-control and sociability. He uses common sense to intuit what these traits are, but on this subject economists have a lot to learn from developmental psychologists.
He just has no real idea how to get there from here.

Brooks has a vision of college that is pretty much the opposite of Murray's, but he isn't basing his argument on the facts.
Goldin and Katz describe a race between technology and education. The pace of technological change has been surprisingly steady. In periods when educational progress outpaces this change, inequality narrows. The market is flooded with skilled workers, so their wages rise modestly. In periods, like the current one, when educational progress lags behind technological change, inequality widens. The relatively few skilled workers command higher prices, while the many unskilled ones have little bargaining power.
Yet if we're defining a "skilled worker" as one with a college education, college graduates aren't doing particularly well. The wealthy - the truly wealthy - whether they earned or inherited their way into the top 1%, are thriving.
The 2006 Economic Report of the President tells us that the real earnings of college graduates actually fell more than 5 percent between 2000 and 2004. Over the longer stretch from 1975 to 2004 the average earnings of college graduates rose, but by less than 1 percent per year.

* * *

Between 1972 and 2001 the wage and salary income of Americans at the 90th percentile of the income distribution rose only 34 percent, or about 1 percent per year. So being in the top 10 percent of the income distribution, like being a college graduate, wasn't a ticket to big income gains.

But income at the 99th percentile rose 87 percent; income at the 99.9th percentile rose 181 percent; and income at the 99.99th percentile rose 497 percent. No, that's not a misprint.
I can agree with this part of Brooks' thesis - we need to find ways to foster the best performance from our nation's children. We should provide a context where any child who has the interest and aptitude for college has the opportunity to attend. But I also want to see college shift back toward being a place of intellectual exploration and growth, from its current trend toward being a form of trade school. That means not attempting universal college education. Give those who want it the opportunity to catch up at a community college or junior college before entering a four year school, but expect those entering a four year degree program to hit the ground running. Don't dumb down undergraduate and graduate programs to accommodate students who don't belong in the program, including those who wish to coast through a program because they get an automatic raise at work when they get the degree.

And what of the employer side? When I talk to people who graduated from college in the 1950's and 1960's, they often describe a world in which your degree (whatever your major) opened pretty much any door. One described how, with a teaching degree, he was heavily recruited into entry level business management positions. Through the 1970's and 1980's, there was a shift toward more specialized degrees (e.g., the MBA), but there was still a lot of opportunity for college graduates regardless of their major. For those inclined toward math or computers, the opportunities were particularly great, and that was followed by a period in the dot-com boom where pretty much anybody with a degree and a pulse could get a job doing something web-related.

But the overall trend has been toward the four year college degree as a vocational degree - with students wanting to know both, "What job can I get with this degree", and "What will it pay?" Jobs that once required a high school diploma, for reasons that are sometimes genuine but may also be arbitrary, often now demand a college degree. Jobs that once required an undergraduate degree often now demand a masters. The universality of college can make it harder to get ahead, and plays a significant role in the flattening of salaries for college graduates.

Meanwhile, with the cost of college going through the roof, the incentive increases to enter a field that "pays well". Colleges that used to get a lot of working and returning students have to battle for students (and money) with diploma mills like the University of Phoenix. Students who feel forced to pursue a degree "to get a decent job" can drag down a class, due to academic unpreparedness and their disinterest in certain (often "harder") classes. At the same time, between the rising costs of U.S. colleges, increased domestic opportunities for college, and U.S. immigration policy, we can no longer count on the population of foreign students that used to help fill up our college classrooms.

One of the joys of being a columnist (or a blogger) is that you don't have to "put up" - you can produce a new euphemism for great society programs ("This isn't a 'big government' program - it's an investment in human capital"), or make a broad set of proposals and suggestions while pretending they carry no social or economic price tag. But at the end of the day, if you're serious about reform, you have to somehow tie those ideas to reality. As Brooks occasionally, grudgingly implies, the first step in implementing his own ideas and reforms is by targeting the only political party that cares about these issues - in his own words, on this front "The G.O.P. is largely irrelevant." (But even if he starts supporting the party that is more consistent with his stated ideology, it's going to be hard to get any traction.)


  1. You have to know that firms that are serious about MBA only hire from accredited schools and the other programs are just like an MS for jobs where the masters is a legal requirement but quality is not. You will not learn anything you can use from a degree mill and no one will hire you. Even when they have AACSB, they give different pay for different school quality.

  2. The question of whether a degree from a diploma mill is a good qualification for a job is not under debate. But the fact that it often isn't worth the paper it's printed on doesn't change the fact that the University of Phoenix fills up its classrooms, and that it does so largely by virtue of price competition with universities that cater to working and returning students.


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