(Cross-posted at Kitchen Table Math, the Sequel)
Goldin and Katz make two largely correct diagnostic points in The Race Between Education and Technology; that the United States got a significant head start on economic development because it expanded access to secondary and post-secondary education sooner than other countries, and we are no longer ahead in that regard. Their prescription, however, is largely incorrect. We can’t get ahead of other countries by increasing the number of Americans graduating from college, because nearly all of the students who can do so are already trying.
If no European country in 1950 had more than 30 percent of its older teens in school, that was an inefficiency that the United States could exploit to its advantage. But if every young person who can benefit from staying in school long enough to graduate is already doing so, there’s nothing further to exploit.
We can argue about what the ideal high school graduation rate should be, that is, what the criterion for graduation should be, and what needs to be done to ensure every child who is capable of meeting the criterion has resources and opportunity to do so. But it is delusional to believe that we can have both a meaningful criterion for graduation and a 100 percent graduation rate.
I suspect the true graduation rate should be between 80 and 85 percent. Maybe we could push it to 90, subject to the law of diminishing returns, if we poured every possible dollar into the last few marginal students — though, as James Heckman has demonstrated, we’d get much higher returns if we invested the money in them when they were little.
Something similar operates all along the line of returns to increasing education. There are non-economic returns to more education, but they don’t depend on credentials. If everyone who is capable of benefiting economically from higher education is already able to earn a degree, there is no further inefficiency for the U.S. to exploit.
If other countries have larger percentages of their populations who are capable of benefiting from more years of education than the U.S. does, well, what are we supposed to do about that?
Brooks cites economist James Heckman in support of early intervention, but Heckman’s point is not that early intervention is a panacea, but that whatever it can accomplish will be most effective if it’s done early rather than late.
I haven’t read the Heckman paper Brooks is citing, but Heckman has said — very circumspectly — that African Americans and Hispanics begin school with similar performance deficits, but that Hispanics are much more likely to make them up.
From a column I wrote:
. . .
“Our analysis of the Hispanic data illuminates the traditional study of black-white differences and casts doubt on many conventional explanations of these differences since they do not apply to Hispanics who also suffer from many of the same disadvantages.”
I know this is contrary to just about everything you’ve heard or read, so you’re asking, “Who are these people?” They’re Pedro Carneiro, University College London; James J. Heckman, University of Chicago, American Bar Foundation and University College London (and winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize in economics for developing the kind of technical statistical analysis that undergirds this paper) and Dimitriy V. Masterov. The paper was written for the Institute for Labor Market Policy Evaluation, a part of the Swedish Ministry of Industry, Employment and Communications, in Uppsala, Sweden.
The paper is “Labor market discrimination and racial differences in premarket factors” and it’s at www.ifau.se/swe/pdf2005/wp05-03.pdf on the Web.
(For a bonus, the immediately preceding gnxp post dissects the media coverage of the math/gender study.)