Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Planning Higher Education

I watched an interesting debate on American higher education that was suggested by my friend Julianne. One side took the position that the United States needs to provide more college education for our young people while the other side held that we might better provide alternative forms of education to improve our long term economic prospects.

I agree that some kids would be better served by a four year apprenticeship to become a first class plumber or mechanic rather than the four year program in a second rate college in humanities or area studies that they will actually get. Indeed, we probably have the ratios of doctors to nurses, engineers to technicians, lawyers to paralegals and generally professionals to paraprofessionals wrong for maximum economic efficiency.

On the other hand, who says that maximizing economic production is the sole goal of higher education. Education is not only an investment in future earnings; it is also a consumer service. People like to learn interesting things. We could be a more productive society if we cut out other consumer services. If we worked more and spent less time in relaxation we would produce more, but who wants to live in Sparta?

It was pointed out that there are now other countries with a higher percentage of college graduates in the 25 to 30 age bracket than the United States, and a debater suggested that we should educate more to compete. It seems to me that that is comparing apples to oranges. If one were to seek a valid comparison to Scandinavian education levels, one might seek a Scandinavia size area of the United States that has the same concentration of industries as Scandinavia. Thus New England, with its high education levels might be a suitable comparison.

On the other hand, it does you little good if you live in Texas and need a doctor or lawyer to have under employed doctors or lawyers in Boston. In a continent spanning nation, one should be considering the needs and demands for higher education by region.

It seems a common error to assume that one should calculate the rate of return on investment in education only taking the future earnings of the individual. That can't be right. We know for example, that there are spill over effects. Areas with more college graduates have higher per capita income for those college graduates than do areas with fewer college graduates.

My old friend Steve, after he had finished his MD and Internship, went on to get a Masters degree in Public Health, and then a further Doctorate in epidemiology. He pointed out that his lifetime earnings expectation went down with each degree past the MD. Fortunately for society we have some physicians who choose to go into public health. Fortunately for society, we have some public health physicians who choose to further specialize and work as epidemiologists figuring out the nature of the health problems we face and the value of proposes solutions to those problems. The social value of their services is not well measured by the remuneration that they receive.

Think about our system of governance. Think about how poorly governed were some of the new African nations which had few if any college graduates after decolonization. Think about the different voting behavior indicated by surveys for college graduates versus those who have not attended college. I would prefer a more rather than a less educate electorate!

It would also be nice if every person who will devote decades to raising children was thoroughly educated in the care and raising of children. Not only would that seem to justify a four year college course, but a strong program in continuing education to provide just-in-time learning to meet the needs for parenting of developing children. The investment in educated parenting would not show up in increased GDP for a generation (and indeed might look like a step back for a generation) but it might be the best investment we could make.

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