An Educated Population Is Essential to a Nation’s Prosperity, yet Some Politicians Are Demonizing Our Educational System for Political Advantage

Posted in: Education

One of the bedrock areas of agreement in this country, for at least the last century, has been that education is a core commitment of our society.  We might disagree about exactly what subject matter should be taught in schools, or about which governments (federal, state, or local) should finance education, but we have rarely wavered in our recognition that universal education is a right, and that higher education is a priority, for the sake of the country’s current and future well-being.

This broad agreement has been based in part on civic ideals, on the recognition of the role of education in creating citizens who understand how our democracy works.  It has also been based on the recognition that education improves our economy, with educated citizens also being more productive workers.  It would be difficult to imagine a more “mom and apple pie” area of agreement, across the political spectrum, than the subject of education.  That is, until recently.

If Economics Teaches Us Anything, It Is That Education Leads to Prosperity

In recent columns on Verdict (here and here), I have described the limited effectiveness of economists in providing policy advice.  We economists often earn our reputation for being disconnected from reality, and for being unable to agree amongst ourselves.  Some economic concepts are so fundamental, however, that there is very little room for debate.  One among that very small set of concepts is the tenet that an educated population is an essential prerequisite for national prosperity.

When I was in graduate school, one of my professors was a prominent voice against the idea that government could intervene to improve the path of the economy.  I, along with a large majority of economists, disagreed with him about that.  Notwithstanding his commitment to small government, however, this economist also produced research showing that economic prosperity is importantly dependent upon the education of a country’s people.  This is—or, at least, once was—considered a universal truth, by all economists of all ideological stripes.

How do we know that education is so important?  The countries in the world that have become prosperous fall into two categories.  The first category includes those nations that have possessed (or acquired by force) large amounts of a valuable natural resource.  Countries that have been fortunate enough to find themselves sitting on large reserves of gold, oil, rich farmland, and so on, have an obvious advantage over those that are not so fortunately endowed.

The second group of countries—a much larger one—is composed of countries that have educated their citizenry into prosperity.  Nearly all of the countries that have long been the wealthiest in the world reached, or have maintained, that status by having universal pre-college education, along with a strong commitment to higher education.  Even the most resource-poor countries of Northern and Western Europe have enjoyed much higher living standards than many resource-rich countries that do not devote themselves to educating their young people.

Countries that want to become great have learned that economic dominance is predicated upon the creation of a system of high-quality education.  Consider Japan: It possesses few natural resources, consists of a handful of densely-populated islands that are remote from Europe and the United States, and came out of the Second World War with its industrial base all but destroyed.  Even so, the Japanese people committed themselves to building a first-class education system.

The result was decades of impressive economic growth, during which Japan became an economic power and the world’s second-largest economy (only recently surpassed by China, which has a population ten times the size of Japan’s, and is building an impressive education system of its own).  Japan’s stagnation in recent years has been caused by other factors, especially the aging of its population, that are beyond the power of even an excellent education system to reverse.

Other countries have wisely followed Japan’s lead.  Taiwan, for example, is another resource-poor nation that has become an economic powerhouse.  Indeed, a Taiwanese diplomat recently wrote that “Taiwan’s economic achievement is based on education.  [We] believe that education is the bedrock of a nation’s competitiveness.”  One would think that no one would argue with that contention.

Who Should Pay for Education?  Everyone Who Benefits From It—That Is, All of Us

Even if all of the evidence points to the importance of education in achieving economic prosperity, however, one could disagree about who should pay for it.  Becoming better-educated, after all, will benefit a person through higher income and better job opportunities.  If we trust people to choose how to make themselves happy—by buying as much, say, ketchup as they want, and no more—then why do we not simply allow them to buy as much education as they desire, paying out of their own pockets?  The latest census data show that those with high school educations earn about $50,000 per year, while those with college educations earn about $94,000 per year.  Why should we not trust people to go after this economic bonanza, without anyone else’s help?

The answer, again, comes from the most basic economic principles.  Education is good not just for the person who becomes educated, but also for everyone around her.  When citizens are more productive, they are able to contribute to the economy in ways that benefit others far beyond the salaries that they receive.  They also become much less likely to need public assistance (when the economy is not in a slump), to commit criminal acts, and so on.

Economists call these beneficial aspects of education “positive externalities,” because so many of the good things that education creates are enjoyed by others—people who are “external” to the individual who is deciding how much money to spend on education.  This is why it is important for a country’s people, acting together through their government, to increase the amount of spending on education beyond what individuals would choose to spend on their own.

Again, this is about as uncontroversial an economic proposition as one could find.  We can disagree about how heavily education should be subsidized, but we have never before disagreed with the foundational idea that education should be subsidized.

That is one reason why people were so dismayed earlier this month when Republican Presidential front-runner Mitt Romney seemed to abandon the very idea that education should be subsidized by the government.  Answering a question from a young man who expressed concern about his ability to afford higher education, Romney reportedly responded: “It would be popular for me to stand up and say I’m going to give you government money to pay for your college, but I’m not going to promise that. . . . And don’t expect the government to forgive the debt that you take on.”

Why would we not want to give a promising young person “government money” to go to college?  And why would we not want to reduce the debt loads of people who have paid for college by taking out loans?  Failing to do so does not merely punish the individuals who cannot afford college, but also robs the rest of us of the opportunity to share in the prosperity that is possible when young people are enabled to reach their potential.

For Romney’s new position to be correct—that is, for him to accurately say that there should be no “government money” provided to higher education—we would have to believe that there are simply no positive externalities from higher education to justify the assistance.

Until very recently, it was simply a given that American politicians would support education, both pre-college and at the university level.  Subsidized college loans—Pell Grants—received broad bipartisan support.  The program was generally underfunded, but it still managed to send millions of young people to college who otherwise could not have attended.  Yet even funding for Pell Grants is now under attack.

The Republicans’ Disdain for Education: Sowing Social Discord for Political Advantage

America’s most extreme conservatives have a problem.  After years of dominating the political debate, making the tax system less progressive and enabling the wealth in the country to become increasingly concentrated among a tiny elite, they have been surprised by the power of the populist response embodied in the Occupy Wall Street protests.  Even though most Americans never joined the protests, they quickly understood the reality of “the 1%” and “the 99%.”

How to respond?  Divide and conquer, of course!  The vast majority of the population—the very people for whom education would provide such a boon—is in an understandably foul mood, due to the extended pain of the Great Recession and its aftermath.  If that anger can be redirected away from the wealthy and toward a false bogeyman, then the power of the 99% will be effectively neutralized.

We therefore hear Romney make snide remarks about “the faculty lounge,” while his opponent Rick Santorum dismisses President Obama’s call to expand opportunities to attend college as mere snobbery.  The idea, of course, is that “regular folks” in the population should not trust educated people.  Anti-intellectualism is alive and well on the campaign trail.

This attack on educators is especially absurd when leveled against professors at non-Ivy League universities, and even at public school teachers.  Yet a recent editorial by a former university chancellor argues that faculty at non-elite universities—indeed, at community colleges—are overpaid and underworked.  He cites the example of full professors at Maryland’s Montgomery College, who earn the princely sum of $88,000 per year (less than the average for all Americans with a college degree), but who supposedly only work half as much as “their non-academic peers.”

The absurdity of these factual claims has been exposed elsewhere.  My point here is simply that we have reached the point where the American people are being told to turn their anger against highly-educated people who perform some of the most important work in the country—educating a group of students who, in many cases, belong to the first generation in their families to attend college.

We claim to pride ourselves on “equality of opportunity,” but if the people who are essential to preparing young people to seize those opportunities can be painted as somehow coddled—magically teaching their courses without ever taking the time to prepare to teach those course, or ever really “working” at all—then suddenly we are arguing about how to take away those supposedly cushy jobs.  This may be a winning political strategy, but it is disastrous for the long-term health of the country.

What About “Indoctrination”?  The Content of Higher Education Shows Up in the Economic Benefits of a College Degree—and Other Countries Pay Attention

Even before the recent attacks on solidly middle-class educators emerged, there has always been an important element of the culture wars in the attacks on higher education.  Mr. Santorum is only the most recent cultural conservative to attack colleges for supposedly “indoctrinating” students in liberal dogma.  Americans are apparently meant to believe that their tax money is being ill-spent on subsidizing higher education, because their children are being inculcated with nothing but airy-fairy, lefty political cant.

That argument is, again, based on nothing more than the wild fantasies of those with a broader political agenda.  Rather than refuting the argument by describing what goes on inside America’s college classrooms, however, we can simply look at what comes out of them.  Even if it were true that colleges are incubators of liberalism, they are obviously doing something right.

America’s hard-headed businessmen and businesswomen—people who are interested in making a profit—find it worthwhile to recruit America’s college graduates, and to pay them much more than they would pay a high school graduate. How to explain the salary difference? Unless we believe that the market system is completely broken—and has been for decades—we ought to conclude that American colleges and universities are creating graduates who provide economic value.

In addition, those other countries that have educated themselves into prosperity (in many cases, to the point where their living standards are now higher than in the United States) have long sent their most promising students to American universities.  Our system of higher education—both our public colleges and universities, and our private universities that educate students who take out publicly-subsidized loans—is still the envy of the world.

That asset can, however, be squandered.  In the 1980’s, British politicians savaged that country’s once-excellent university system, turning it into a mere shadow of its former self.  American politicians have been doing the same here for decades, leading to a pronounced decline in our advantage over other countries.  It is not too late to save ourselves, but the trends are running decidedly in the wrong direction.

The fact is that any large institution can be improved, and American higher education is no exception.  Reasonable people can and do work together every day, to try to figure out the best way forward for our colleges and universities.  That work should continue.  Turning one of America’s greatest resources into a political punching bag, however, is a dangerous and self-destructive game.  And it is a game that the people of the United States can ill afford to play.

Posted in: Education, Politics