More education isn't always the solution

Too often, economists and policymakers have one recommendation to fix everything: more education. But there are important nuances left out of the discussion.

By , Guest blogger

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    In this file picture, students attend graduation ceremonies at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Bernstein argues that lawmakers and economists tout education as a solution to every problem, but it's not always so simple.

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Just prepping for a talk on education and wanted to share some thoughts.

Too often, economists and policymakers have one recommendation to fix everything: more education.  And truth be told, I’m pretty much on board, but there are important nuances that tend to be left out of the discussion.

–Particularly when it comes to K-12, public policy often seems to be asking school teachers to fix all of society’s ills, while beating up on them for a) not all being above average, b) being in unions, and c) resisting accountability.  The fact is, kids increasingly arrive at school beset by a wide range of social problems generated by poverty and inequality.  That’s never an excuse for not having the best public system we can have, but don’t expect it to solve problems beyond its scope–especially when instead of retaining and improving the quality of teachers’ jobs, we’re laying them off.

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–Do unions protect lousy teachers?  I’m sure some do some of the time, and I’m sure you see that same dynamic in the private sector.  I can tell you for a fact that the leadership of today’s teachers’ unions stand firmly against tenure for undeserving teachers.  But I can also assure you that some (not all) of the union bashing isn’t about better education.  It’s about union bashing.

–Re higher education, the consensus among economists tends to be that there’s a large skills mismatch between employers’ demands and the skills of the workforce.*  I don’t buy it.  The data from the BLS on occupational skill demands now and in the future actually matches up pretty cleanly with the supply of skill, at least at the level of educational attainment.  Yes, employers constantly say they can’t find skilled workers, but that’s kind of the point…they constantly say it.  If it were true, you’d see it in a more quickly rising compensation premium to workers with higher levels of education.  And you don’t really see that type of acceleration.  (Note: the emphasis on “acceleration” is important here—the fact that college workers are paid more than high school workers isn’t the issue—unmet skill demands imply an increasingly rising premium, and the college premium has actually decelerated in recent years, as this slide from EPI reveals–it shows the regression-adjusted college premium as flat since the latter 90s for women and rising more slowly for men.)

–But here’s the thing: I still think we’d have a better economy/society with higher levels of educational attainment…I’m quite certain, in fact.  It’s wrong to think that the jobs of the future all will demand wicked high skill sets—we’re going to need lots of home health aides, cashiers, security guards, equipment technicians, child care workers, along with high-end engineers.   But to have smarter, better educated people in all of those jobs makes all the sense in the world.  We want our child care workers and home health aides to be highly trained—not as Ph.Ds in robotics, but in their fields.

–The way to understand the nexus of education and the economy/jobs is thus not in the traditional skills mismatch framework.  That’s way too vague and disconnected from what’s happening on the ground.  Instead, think of an old-fashioned production function where better inputs generate better outputs.  Human capital is one of those inputs.  The way forward is thus not to just willy-nilly advocate for greater college attainment.  It’s to take a clear-eyed look at education and job/career training needs across the life-cycle.  The future surely requires kids with STEM training; it also requires health technicians with AA’s who can keep that MRI percolating the way it’s supposed to.  And child care workers who thoroughly understand how kids learn, and home health aides who know a lot about gerontology.

Much more to say about this so more to come.  Next: college access isn’t the whole story—it’s also about completion.

*Update: An economist friend who knows of what she speaks tells me that she doesn’t think most economists agree that there’s a mismatch between the supply of and demand for skills in the workforce.  She may be right, but I think it’s pretty widely held.   And there’s no question that you hear it all the time from employers and policy makers.

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