Graduating students Photo courtesy of Texas A&M University Commerce

Last week’s New York Times featured an article by Eduardo Porter that laid the historical background of the US educational landscape out quite clearly, and yet drew a surprisingly inept conclusion. Porter rightly points to a longstanding American goal of educating its populace (mainly future citizens), and draws attention to a number of key benchmarks in the 20th century, such as the G.I. Bill, which offers veterans a subsidized education, and the corresponding rise in American prosperity after World War II. His conclusion is that the US has failed in its goal, because children who are born into poverty are substantially less likely to obtain postsecondary degrees than children who are not born into poverty. Thus the idea that education levels the playing field is false.

The premise, that poverty and low educational attainment are linked in a vicious cycle, is obvious. There are a number of pieces of evidence that could be marshaled in support of the connection between poverty and low educational attainment: students from low-income households have smaller vocabularies on beginning school; their districts are more likely to be underfunded; their home environments may be more distracting, or they may be homeless; and, one that the author lays out, their families may be less willing or less able to pay for postsecondary education. (This last point, it’s worth noting, comes in two subtypes: families who can’t pay without taking out loans, or who can pay only for an associate’s degree, and families who can’t afford to lose the labor of their teenage children. The second group is much more disadvantaged, and much less likely to improve educational attainment, because they essentially need two loans: one to cover collegiate expenses, and the other to cover lost wages.) There has also been concern that in high-need districts, teachers will be forced to teach to standardized tests, rather than focusing on more useful content, in order to meet prescribed benchmarks.

Porter’s conclusion is somewhat tautological: poverty and educational outcomes are linked. But his evidence, an OECD survey that shows the percentage of students who have exceeded their parents’ educational attainment, does not support the conclusion. The historical fact that the US has long been interested in educating everyone, rather than the elite, means that with each generation it is more difficult to outperform your elders — at least, more difficult without reaching degree inflation and credentialism, which is arguably already happening in the US. The metric that we are looking for isn’t “exceeded”, but “equaled or exceeded” — and I suspect we don’t get that one because it wouldn’t make nearly as good a story.

Porter can’t be accused of ignorance, because he lays his facts out quite accurately. His inferences, on the other hand, don’t follow. For example, after carefully laying out how the US was a leader in educating its populace in the mid-20th century, he notes that “In the 1970s, graduation rates from four-year colleges slowed sharply and even went into reverse for men. And the world caught up. For those Americans between 55 to 64, 42 percent have a college degree, a rate surpassed only by Canada and Israel in the O.E.C.D. But among people aged 25 to 34, the United States is in 11th place, with a college graduation rate only slightly greater, at 44 percent.” According to Porter, this is a sign of American decline.

There are two major problems with this argument. First, the one that you’d expect an economist to know: slowing growth is not necessarily decline. Indeed, Porter’s evidence disproves his major conclusion (that fewer Americans are obtaining a college education): there is only a 2% difference, but it is weighted in youth’s favor. Moreover, almost all Americans in their 20s or older now posses a high-school diploma, and many of those begin college. It seems fairly clear from the census data that the gap lies in college completion.

Second, in the 1970s it was still possible to obtain a good job (and that’s what the business section is really interested in) without a college education. The change in the economic landscape over the past 50 years must be taken into account. And political changes matter, too; I wonder how much of that ‘decline’ can be attributed to an earlier increase in attendance to escape the draft? (Without knowing where Porter got his figures — perhaps here? — it’s hard to check; his cited sources use data from 1979 and 1997, so are not relevant to this point.) So while Porter may have a point that other nations are increasing their college attainment faster than the US (change in global placement from 3 to 11, an improvement from 2011), he’s wrong to imply that American degree attainment is slipping in relation to itself. In fact, as the report here shows on p. 3, the percentage of Americans aged 18-24 with a bachelor’s degree has increased substantially since 1970 in two metrics: both in terms of completion (the “completion rate”) and in the population as a whole, including those who do not start college (the “attainment rate”).

More distressingly, the conclusion that education “equalizes” is a false one on two fronts. First, historically: public education was not intended to make everyone earn roughly the same amount. Historically speaking, reformers come from a place of middle-class privilege, and are generally unwilling to give up all of that privilege even while they try to improve the lots of others. Instead, public education was supposed to teach future voters to be responsible citizens. Education is an engine of socialization, not socialism. We cannot and should not ask the educational system to take on the task of a welfare program.

Second, economically. Porter seems to assume that the only way to achieve financial prosperity is through a college degree. This is perhaps true now, but (as I discussed in last week’s post only because of credentialism and a bad economy. Jobs that require the skills of a high-school diploma routinely require the employee to have a bachelor’s degree. This increased expectation leads to two things, neither of which is ideal: first, those without the degrees are largely barred from the workplace (excepting low-wage jobs, such as cashiers); and second, the increased earning potential of a bachelor’s degree becomes stagnant. These two consequences are what people mean when they talk about the bachelor’s degree being the new GED: it is the minimum qualification, and as such is less valued.

If Porter had looked a little further down on his chart, he might have come to a different conclusion. A few steps below the US in measures of educational attainment sits Germany, whose apprenticeship system is routinely cited as a model for education and whose economy continues to thrive. Although Porter compares the US to a number of other developed countries — such as Japan, Canada, and Israel — Germany is conspicuously absent. The German evidence makes the equation less ‘simple’ — but it also suggests that simplicity is not the answer.

About the Author: Jaclyn Neel is a visiting Assistant Professor in Ancient History at York University in Toronto, Ontario.