Tag: college degree

Did They Learn Correlation and Causation in College?

It looks like Peter Thiel won’t be unopposed advising kids to stay out of college

Thanks to a new report from Georgetown University economist Anthony Carnevale, and a David Leonhardt column based on Carnevale’s study, over the last few days the college-for-all crowd has been striking back. But they seem to have missed something in their own college training: correlation does not equal causation.

Carnevale, Leonhardt, and others’ argument is basically that there are big, positive returns on a college degree. It’s something, frankly, that’s not generally in dispute. I say “generally,” because while on average college grads make a lot more than people without a degree, there’s a lot more to the story than averages. Indeed, there are at least three major problems with making averages the basis for a universal-college offensive, problems that Andrew Gillen recently laid out in a terrific blog post. I won’t reinvent the wheel by going into them all (read Andrew’s post) but I’ll summarize them: (1) There are huge throngs of people who attempt college and never finish, a giant population ignored when you just look at completers; (2) at least part of the college wage premium is simply a function of a degree signaling something about the intelligence, work habits, etc. that graduates already possessed; and (3) there are some majors and degrees that confer no great wage premium and are in about as much demand as Betamax or gangrene.

What is most concerning about the Carnevale report, however, is how the report and its fans make the very basic mistake of conflating correlation with causation in implying that the roughly one-third of bachelor’s holders in jobs not requiring degrees are much better workers thanks to their BAs. They base that conclusion on degree-holders in non-degree jobs earning appreciably more than workers with only high-school diplomas. Heck, a graphic to go with Leanohardt’s column trumpets that dishwashers with college degrees make a lot more than dishwashers without them, a data point seized on by the Fordham Institute’s Peter Meyer to attack anyone who dares say college isn’t the best option for everyone.

Once the dishwasher example comes up, is there any way to escape the causation/correlation problem? Any way to not at least seriously contemplate that it isn’t what someone learned in college that makes him or her a better dishwasher, but that someone able to graduate college will tend to be more punctual and reliable? Heck, even if you believed that the proverbial underwater basket weaving major existed, it would be very hard to conclude that the skills one would need to make the finest submerged wickerwork would be useful for getting dinner plates spotless, even though that often occurs underwater.

And many of the public service jobs cited in the graphic, such as firefighters? At least from what we know about teachers, government employee pay scales often give salary bumps for degrees, but degrees don’t necessarily have any bearing on job effectiveness.

People like Carnevale and Leonhardt are right to guard against efforts, especially by public-school employees, to actively push kids away from college, in particular if that’s driven by students’ class or race. But shoving everyone into ivy walls? Based on what we know, that’s equally unjustifiable.

“Dear Foreigners, You Do the Math” —USA

A brand new Harvard University study finds that American students perform very poorly in math compared to their peers in other nations.

What’s that? You’ve heard this all before? Not quite.

This study compares the percentages of students scoring at advanced levels across countries, and it controls for the confounding effects of differing populations of disadvantaged groups. When the researchers looked exclusively at white students and at students with at least one parent with a college degree, the results remained largely the same. Among white students, for instance, 8 percent of Americans scored “advanced” in math, landing us in 25th place among nations for which scores were available–behind nearly every other advanced industrialized nation on Earth. And the highest ranked U.S. state, Massachusetts, trails the overall averages of 14 nations.

This may come as a shock to those who imagined that America’s educational shortcomings were restricted to inner cities or disadvantaged populations, but it is entirely consistent with results reported more than a decade ago as part of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, showing that U.S. students taking advanced mathematics and physics classes lagged their peers in other industrialized nations at the end of high school, often by wide margins.

So how, then, have we remained an economic superpower for so long if our school system is so bad? The answer is that we have historically enjoyed one of the freest economies on Earth, a relatively unfettered labor market, and comparatively low taxes–all of which have drawn to our shores many of the world’s best and brightest. Regrettably, our comparative advantage in those areas has eroded over the past several years.

Perhaps, instead of continuing to make our economy more like our failing centrally planned school monopoly, we should allow our education system to benefit from the freedoms and incentives of the marketplace that was always the engine of our prosperity….

The College Earnings Premium — Why It’s Meaningless

The WSJ reports today on the average lifetime earnings advantage conferred by a college degree. This statistic is probably worse than useless. “College” isn’t a single thing, and its benefits will not likely be enjoyed equally by every single student, even those pursuing precisely the same degrees.

For a college earnings premium figure to be of any value to policymakers or prospective college students, it would be necessary to break it down by field and by student characteristics. What’s the premium difference, for instance, between workers who majored in engineering, chemistry, computer science, mathematics, economics, etc., compared to those who majored in communications, art history, social work, multicultural studies, etc.? A similar breakdown of interest would be by SAT score.

These breakdowns would help people to make better informed decisions. An overall earnings premium estimate may well be worse than nothing: leading to great over- or underestimates for the value of a particular college degree to a particular student.

Education Has Diminishing Returns!?

Inside Higher Ed features a terrific essay today by economist Michael Rizzo. Rizzo takes issue with President Obama’s goals to have all Americans complete at least one post-secondary year of education or job training, and for the nation to have the world’s highest percentage of college graduates by 2020. I’ve opined about this before, but Rizzo does it much more comprehensively, noting especially that - surprise! - education can suffer from “diminishing returns.”

Here’s the meat of Rizzo’s piece, but you really should read the whole thing:

More education has to be a good thing. After all, receiving more schooling can’t make you less productive, right? Education is like exercise, reading, spending time with one’s children, and sleeping – each of these is good for you. It is obvious that dedicating more attention to each of these is good. It is obvious … and wrong – for both individuals and societies as a whole.

While investing in each of these likely generates enormous benefits when starting from scratch, at some point each additional unit invested generates fewer benefits than the one before it – just as eating that fourth doughnut brings you less satisfaction than did the second. What if these so-called “diminishing returns” never set in for education? In a world of scarce time and resources, they must, albeit indirectly. Dedicating more resources to the production of educated workers must come at the expense of resources dedicated to creating other important capital goods, institutions, or consumption goods. An individual cannot dedicate 24 hours in a day to everything, nor can society dedicate all of its resources to everything. Put another way, if merely leading the world in educational attainment is desirable, why not aim to have every American receive a college degree? Better yet, why not aim to have every American earn a Ph.D.?