The Quantity of Education and the Quality of Education

by Reihan Salam

In an interview with Chad Aldeman of Education Next, Eric Hanushek, co-author of a new study on income differences across U.S. states, makes the very simple but often neglected point that the quality of one’s education matters just as much, if not more, than the quantity, as measured by years of schooling:

What we did in this work was to go beyond the simplistic notion that human capital is best measured by school attainment and tried to include the quality of learning, or achievement, that people possess in different states. This turns out to be a fairly difficult problem because we know where workers are now but many workers were not educated in the state they’re working in now, or the country they were educated in, in the case of international immigrants. So we had an elaborate project that involved trying to trace workers in every state back to where they were educated and the quality of education in the place they were educated in. And then we looked at the differences in income across states based on where people were educated.

That’s an elaborate lead-up to a relatively straightforward summary, which is that perhaps one-third of the difference in incomes across states that we see today can be attributed to human capital differences in the workers of each state. Of the human capital differences, roughly half come from differences in school attainment, and half of it comes from differences in the quality of learning. (You can think of that as test scores, or achievement differences among the population, representing about half of the gap.)

With this in mind, Hanushek suggests that policymakers focus too much on high school completion and college-going rates, as the quality of learning is ultimately most important. The problem, however, is that because it is far easier to measure years of educational attainment than the extent to which schooling actually translates into learning, we fixate on the former while neglecting the latter. This brings to mind Andrew Kelly’s critique of the new effort to make community colleges attendance free. Because most low-income students pay virtually nothing in net tuition, this effort has (understandably) focused on other costs of attendance, like basic living expenses. Kelly raises an important question about this approach:

[S]imply throwing money for living expenses at students is unlikely to remove other clear obstacles to success and may well exacerbate them. For instance, how would free college improve student readiness? Federal data show that 68 percent of public two-year college students have to take at least one remedial course; the average student who starts at a two-year college takes 2.9 remedial courses. Very few of these students complete a degree or certificate. Free college tuition won’t fix American high schools, and conditioning cash for living expenses on college attendance would likely draw in even more students who are unprepared for college-level work.

I don’t doubt that offering living expenses to young people for attending community college (but not for some other purpose, like getting an entry-level job) will greatly increase college-going rates. To what extent will this strategy pay off in imparting valuable cognitive skills? It’s hard to say. Some argue that if the federal government devotes more resources to community colleges, it can then impose higher standards on them, and in doing so raise their educational quality. Kelly doesn’t think much of this argument, and neither do I.

What I do know, however, is that focusing on the quantity of inputs in education, whether K-12 or higher education, will mean more resources for the people who provide education, whether or not students actually learn anything. Could that possibly be the one of the main drivers of calls for higher budgets? I’ll leave that to you to decide. 

I’ll briefly note that focusing on the quality of education can help explain one of the more surprising facts about the U.S. immigrant population, which is that 26 percent of households headed by college-educated immigrants make use of safety net programs while the same is true of only 13 percent of households headed by college-educated natives. (To be sure, there are other subtleties we’d want to consider, like the age of the heads of household in question.) As I’ve suggested elsewhere, this might reflect the fact that the quality of education varies dramatically across countries. Judging by the results from international educational assessments, students in Lebanon, for example, learn far more every year than students in Qatar. Lumping together college graduates from countries with high-quality educational systems and those from countries with low-quality systems can yield misleading conclusions about the extent to which individuals are prepared to flourish in the U.S. labor market.

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