A society with and without schooling

Tyler Cowen’s discussion of higher education value is one plausible way to answer the question, What is the benefit of higher education?

It’s now common that a fire chief has to have a master’s degree. That may sound silly and it would be easy to think that a master’s degree has not very much to do with putting out fires. Still, often it is desired that a firefighter is trained in emergency medical services, anti-terrorism practices, fire science (such as putting out industrial fires), and there is a demand for firefighter who, as they move into leadership roles, can do public speaking, interact with the community, and write grant proposals. A master’s degree is no guarantee of skill in these areas, but suddenly the new requirements don’t sound so crazy.

In other words, successful middle managers such as fire chiefs1 require a mix of industry-specific knowledge, general cognitive honing in a professional-habit and -skills package, and the non-cognitive habits that are often called “soft skills.” And yet that micro approach–what is the immediate value in a labor market?–misses a significant dimension. The consequence of any form of education is not just the identifiable value to an individual or her or his employer but the effect of an entire society with a different educational experience.

Teasing out those long-term effects is difficult, but the change in an entire population’s schooling is not just the sum of the individual consequences. Sometimes the effect is what you would expect from human-capital arguments: if there are millions of people with bachelors’ degrees, employers can organize work around the expectation they can regularly hire people who have a certain skill level, employers often collect around locations where they can predict the school level of those who live there (i.e., many potential workers), and so forth.

More often the effect is not what you would expect from a human-capital perspective: I suspect a certain amount of the consumption-based economy in the U.S. is related to school experiences.2 More obviously, we now have millions of young adults who are much better educated than their counterparts of a century ago, but unemployment among youth is very high. The last decade’s significant shift of college costs from states onto students and their families compounds the uncertainty around population experiences: economists used to say (six years ago) that the biggest real cost of attending college is the opportunity cost of foregone work. That is become less true every year, and the fact that it is almost impossible to discharge college loans in bankruptcy shows that it is important to pay attention to policy details. It is a nasty quirk of U.S. law that hundreds of thousands of former college students are now effectively debt peons, even (and even moreso) if they did not graduate from college.3

Having a population that is more schooled changes the population. That does not necessarily mean more schooling guarantees a better life: schooling does not automatically make a population more rational or moral. Nor does it necessarily create a population that is more cultured. Nor does it guarantee reduced inequality or poverty. Whether increasing the general level of schooling results in any of those goals depends on historical context and specifics far beyond school walls. But on the whole, it is a fair and open question to ask, what is the difference between a more-schooled and a less-schooled society?


  1. So what if they’re not in corporations? They still do the same things corporate middle-managers do, except corporate middle managers only have to fight fires Monday through Friday. []
  2. In chapter 4 of Economics and the Public Purpose (1973), John Kenneth Galbraith argued that one consequence of college education for women was being in charge of educated and managed household consumption. Despite greater labor-force participation by women today than when Galbraith wrote that book, the claim still stings true. []
  3. I wish the Occupy movement would focus on the current inability to discharge student loans in bankruptcy… []

One response to “A society with and without schooling”

  1. Glen S. McGhee

    I had lunch with a fire chief today, and the idea of having to have a Masters degree would have appalled him. It’s just another example of higher ed over-reaching, and rampant credential inflation.

    The fire chief talked about how he acquired his skill sets (rookie initiation, mentorship by the senior fire fighter, and various additional certifications along the way), a process now nearing a state of collapse.

    He also talked about ID cards with encrypted specialized certifications, use to validate capabilities in emergencies. All earned outside academic settings.