Thinking through education

I heard an interesting podcast as i was shovelling snow this morning on the relationship between post-secondary education and income potential.  The authors, a couple of economists, are convinced that the way to reignite the American economy is by driving even higher rates of post-secondary education.

There is obviously a strong link between post-secondary education and income level throughout the course of a career – I don’t dispute that at all.

But I am not sure that widespread post-secondary education is the panacea that some economists make it out to be.

Their logic smacks of a Richard Floridian naivete.  In a report on Toronto, Florida talked about the need to focus on the service sector – food court workers, janitors, etc. as part of the creative class and that adopting his thinking would lead to innovation and higher incomes (I’m paraphrasing).

Ultimately, this is quite silly.  While I don’t doubt there is some benefit to creative class thinking in food courts (maybe out of work singers crooning as I eat my smoked meat sandwich?) – some industries, some jobs are just relatively routine and mundane tasks – they are absolutely necessary to the economy but adding a university degree to a janitor job is not going to transform that job into a $80,000/year job.

The reason why post-secondary education is correlated to higher incomes is that many of the new jobs (and some of the older jobs) require a higher level of education.

But there are a whole slew of jobs that will never require a university degree.

I’m a believer in post-secondary education.  I think there is merit in just about everyone getting a university degree from carpenters to research scientists but I think we have to be realistic – if we are promising young people guaranteed higher incomes we had better have the jobs base to back that up. 

I think we need to rethink university education anyway.  In 2011, a university education is similar to a high school education in the 1940s.  We should encourage young people to get a university or college education as part of their life goals.  We need to back off this idea that everyone getting a university degree will make a lot more than everyone else in the future. 

I am not sure that will be the case.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Thinking through education

  1. You are correct, higher education is not a sufficient condition for increased prosperity.

    That said, there are substantial benefits to a population with higher education levels, and it is important not to assume a narrow employment-related perspective on this. Higher education is correlated with lower crime, higher civic engagement and better health outcomes.

    That said, the benefits of higher education levels depend on educational inputs. This is where the pundits naivete shows through. The suggestion is that, solely by investing in education, economic and social benefits can be produced.

    Educational outcomes, howver, are strongly correlated to social economic status. Because of a variety of factors, ranging from parental support to availability of resources to peer expectations, children of higher economic status have higher educational outcomes. Moreover, as international testing has shown, a reduction in the gap between high and poor in a society (whatever the country’s relative income levels) will lead to higher educational outcomes.

    Higher educational outcomes, in other words, are not merely the output of educational policy, but also of a wider social policy, one that stresses support, infrastructure, expectations and equity. This social policy is also productive of desirable outcomes, including lower crime, higher civic engagement and better health outcomes.

    All of these, in time, result in greater economic productivity. But – note well – they are HARMED, not helped, by an economic development policy that focuses on the jobs that people fill, rather than the abilities and capacities of the people themselves.

  2. mikel says:

    Sorry to be too critical so early in the new year, but I doubt very much the economists are making the above conclusion-what they SAID was that there needs to be higher post sec. rates, and who can dispute that? I’d also like to see that Florida quote too, because it sounds VERY oversimplified, if not wrong.
    The assumption HERE is that university only churns out ‘workers’, and thats not the case at all. Waterloo is proof of that, the computer science departments are churning out ‘entrepreneurs’. There is still some business experience lacking, so there are several programs here partnering new tech entrepreneurs with angel investors and mentors because its well known that you can’t ‘teach’ entrepreneurship, you can only ‘train’ for it-which is the ‘extra’ program you need OTHER than simply the degree.

    Education no longer means what it used to. On CBC a pundit was pointing out that the smartest kids at university aren’t even wasting their time going to class. If you WANT an education you can easily get one for free online. You can find virtually everything online that can be found in a class textbook or from a college professor. I was horrified to find out that public schools are STILL wasting millions of dollars every year buying textbooks-thats ridiculous.

    It’s an online world, and virtually everything you need to learn to take advantage of it can be found for free online. The question of ‘what is education’ is a huge one, and I don’t think anybody has really suggested “just get everyone a university degree and everything will be fine”. However, I can well understand somebody saying “anybody that DOESN”T get a university education, is going to be in big trouble and better be VERY entrepreneurial minded, and intellectually disciplined enough to compensate”.

  3. Scott says:

    Great post, David. I’ll just say, or add, that if we look at the history of the economy and/or economic devel;opment and the policies surrounding it in our province, there is no evidence that the staple industries, and/or anchor industries here required a high level of post secondary educational or training in order to enter into them. I could be wrong, but our competitive advantage (or at least the one our politicians focused on in recent times) was our ability to offer a workforce based on low education and low wages. Unfortunately, that ship has sailed as other countries are competing in similar sectors for similar labour, and India and China tend to win these battles.

  4. mikel says:

    Not sure about the ‘low education’ part above. David has pointed out that NB has a high proportion of post secondary grads, and the number of people in low wage occupations are really the same everywhere.

    What isn’t clear is whether that low wage/low education workforce wasn’t desired by the industry that exists already in NB. Companies want lots of competition to keep wages low, and as I’ve pointed out before, even when mills began closing down in the early 2000’s you had an education minister talking about a main policy aim being getting more forestry students.

  5. Scott says:

    …even when mills began closing down in the early 2000’s you had an education minister talking about a main policy aim being getting more forestry students.

    Good point, mikel. Although that doesn’t surprise me at all given the fact that many industrial firms and mills, including one’s owned by Irving, have been highly subsidized by government over the years. Let’s just say uncompetitve mills became too big to fail, even though it was quite evident they were [failing]. The bubble finally burst on both the industry and the politicians crafting unrealitic policies (like, for example, the one you spoke of above).

  6. Scott says:

    …even when mills began closing down in the early 2000’s you had an education minister talking about a main policy aim being getting more forestry students.

    Good point, mikel. Although that doesn’t surprise me at all given the fact that many industrial firms and mills, including one’s owned by Irving, have been highly subsidized by government over the years. Let’s just say uncompetitve mills became too big to fail, even though it was quite evident they were [failing]. The bubble finally burst on both the industry and the politicians crafting unrealitic policies (like, for example, the one you spoke of above).

  7. mikel says:

    I’d let the thread die in peace except I need to make a big distinction. Trying to get as many forestry students as possible is not a policy development in reaction to mills being ‘too big to fail’. Not in the least.
    It’s instead (I think) more akin to what Richard talks about-the impact of the few large industrial players who want a steady source of cheap labour. The main way to have cheap labour is to have a lot of people looking for jobs in a small industry.
    This isn’t like a cash bailout to save a pulp mill. The mills won’t ‘go under’ without a huge supply of forestry students (SOME forestry students will gravitate towards that field anyway, they don’t need government advertising for them).

  8. richard says:

    Historically, in the latter parts of the 1900s at least, a higher education did help you get your foot in the door. But perhaps what the authors of that quote were trying to say is that an ‘education’ culture should also be an innovation culture. Not everyone will be an innovator, but if you encourage a higher proportion of the population to develop a ‘continuous learning’ mindset then you also encourage innovation. Feed curiosity and a desire to learn; innovation is a product of that process. Education has to be more than just going to school; there has to be a society that actively supports learning.

    Unfortunately, NB is unlikely to move in that direction. The laptop computer pgm has been axed – I guess it did not sit too well with the PC base. Worse, we will see cuts to both lower and higher education budgets over the next few years. These will be across the board cuts with little attempt to salvage the good and discard the bad.

Comments are closed.