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The case for what education can't accomplish

Apr 8, 2015

America is becoming less equal.

That much is now widely acknowledged.

But what can be done to improve things for the next generation?

We’ve been doing this work on State of Opportunity for nearly three years now. If there’s one thing I’ve heard over and over about how to help kids get ahead, it’s this: Education is the key.

"Once you’ve made it to college and graduated, your social mobility opportunities are great," said Fabian Pfeffer.

"Putting people into more post-secondary education would strongly promote their mobility," said Erin Currier.

"We’re talking about producing skills," said James Heckman. "Skills are the core of the modern economy."

If you want a good job, you have to have skills. If you want skills, you have to have education. That’s pretty uncontroversial.

But then I came across the work of this guy:

"I’ve been doing research for probably 25 years, challenging the idea that the problem with wage-growth is that workers have inadequate skills," he said.

"You can't sprinkle schooling on people and expect everything to get better."

His name is Lawrence Mishel. He’s a labor economist and director of the Economic Policy Institute. His argument, succinctly put, is this:

"You can’t sprinkle schooling on people and expect everything to get better."

Mishel says the reason inequality has been growing in the United States since the 1970s, is that middle class wages have more or less stagnated while incomes at the top have soared.

And that middle class wage stagnation affects college graduates too.

"The wages of someone with an associate college degree today earns what someone with an associate college degree earned in 1992," Mishel says. "And someone with a college degree today earns what someone with a college degree earned in 2002."

Now, clearly, people with college degrees still earn, on average, more than people without college degrees.

Which creates a bit of a contradiction in Mishel’s argument. You see, he’s not against education.

"If I were giving a talk to sophomores in high school, I would tell all of them that they would be better off if they complete high school and they get as much education and training as they can, including college," he says.

But that extra education and training may just mean that the college graduate gets a job that used to go to someone who only completed high school. Think of your favorite local, highly educated coffee barista, for example.

More education might help individuals get better jobs than if they hadn’t gotten the education. But if the available jobs aren’t paying more, then it’s not having an impact on the inequality problem.

"So what’s true for an individual is not necessarily true overall," Mishel says.

And Mishel isn’t the only one making this argument, at least not anymore. One big name in the world of economists, Larry Summers, says talking about education as a solution to inequality is "an evasion."

Last week, Summers co-authored a paper released by the Brookings Institution to help make that case. The paper calculated what might happen IF 10 percent of working-age men suddenly got a college degree they didn’t have before. The conclusion: Those men would be better off, but overall wage inequality would remain basically the same.

And, this isn’t just a debate for economists. Mishel says policymakers are starting to weigh in on the inequality problem too. 

"And I think people ought to be asking, ‘What are the mechanisms by which you are saying you’re going to change the economy?’” he says.

That could be a key question in the next election cycle. So if you hear a politician claim that education is the answer to all our inequality problems, just know it’s probably not the only answer.