Arnold Kling  

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Clive Crook writes,


Younger cohorts are no better educated than these soon-to-retire boomers. Broadly speaking, educational quality has topped out - and on at least one measure, it is actually deteriorating. In 2006, Americans aged 55-59 collectively possessed more masters degrees, professional degrees and doctorates than Americans aged 30-34. This impending loss of educational capital is entirely outside the country's experience.

I cannot read a story like this without thinking in terms of assortative marriage. My guess is that most of the younger (aged 30-34) highly-educated folks are children of two highly-educated parents. My guess is that many of the older (aged 55-59) highly-educated folks are children of a college-educated father but not a college-educated mother.

I don't think we have a recipe that says, "Take a child of two non-college educated parents, add primary education ingredient X, bake, and out comes a college-capable high school graduate." The mystery ingredient X has yet to be discovered.

Thanks to Richard Florida for the pointer.



COMMENTS (12 to date)
Art Woolf writes:

I wonder about the statistics. What if many people get their masters degrees while they are in their mid or late 30s? I can see this being the case for many occupations, for example teachers.

Mitch Oliver writes:

I share Art Woolf's question. The article appears to address this as well:
Another plausible argument is that in-work training and mid-life schooling are more important than they used to be and that the figures ignore such assets.

It also offers the other objection that occurred to me:
Yet another is simply that it is possible to send too many people to college - that for many students, another four years out of the workforce is not in fact a good investment and that it is an even worse investment for the taxpayers who subsidise it.

With the high (and arguably inflated) cost of college, is it still worth it? For so many students, attending college means taking on debt that will be repaid over the course of their working life. Doubly so for graduate school. Perhaps this isn't such a grand idea, particularly given the propensity towards non-profit (and non-lucrative) employment.

Ajay writes:

And X will never have to be discovered, as college curricula as currently constituted are mostly a waste of time. The future is in narrowly focused courses that can be combined for as little or as much learning as the student wants. The current education establishment is highly unmotivated to produce this inevitable outcome for obvious reasons. This leaves a huge opportunity for the existing education market to be destroyed and replaced with this customized, better model, an event I will appreciate with some glee.

Poly writes:

It's amusing to see educational quality / capital measured by the number of Masters and PhDs. Most of the individuals I've met with advanced degrees are less educated than the average baccalaureate degree holder. Instead of having the capacity to face the business world head-on, they needed another 3-5 years of the same familiar comfortable academic environment where success is measured by regurgitation rather than creative innovation. Along the way, they've specialized to a point where they're no longer flexible and dynamic -- key attributes in today's economy. And we're supposed to be worse off because there's less of them?

It's a fantastic thing that people today only need 12+4 years to take off the training wheels and enter the real world.

Dr. T writes:

Poly has been hanging out with the wrong kind of people with advanced degrees. It is almost impossible to be a successful scientist without the extra course work, lab work, and mentoring of a Ph.D. program. But, as we know, doctoral level scientists are few. I have seen a lot of people with worthless degrees in business, sociology, counseling, political 'science', etc., and I assume those are the types of people Poly knows.

I do believe that today's teenagers will exceed all prior generations in numbers of advanced degrees. College is so watered-down today that many professions that used to require a baccalaureate degree now require a master's degree. If this trend continues, most entry-level positions will require a doctorate.

Ron Beheler writes:

Lets not forget that 55-59 year olds would have been of college age during the Vietnam War. And males had a big incentive during that time to extend their studies to defer enlistment in the war. I'd like to see the distribution between males and females. Then I'd like to see a 60 year time-series of all age groups broken out by sex with relative (as a percentage of the sex population) and absolute measures.

Rob Sperry writes:

"I don't think we have a recipe that says, "Take a child of two non-college educated parents, add primary education ingredient X, bake, and out comes a college-capable high school graduate." The mystery ingredient X has yet to be discovered."

The best candidate for "ingredient X" is the Direct Instruction program developed by Zig Engelmann and others. At the very least it has demonstrated an ability to greatly improve the academic performance of low SES children.

For a recent stark example see:
http://d-edreckoning.blogspot.com/2008/07/apparently-poor-can-be-taught-to-read.html

Chuck writes:
I don't think we have a recipe that says, "Take a child of two non-college educated parents, add primary education ingredient X, bake, and out comes a college-capable high school graduate." The mystery ingredient X has yet to be discovered.

This is not true. This topic has been studied. Mystery ingredient X is a combination of (1) high expectations (2) tough love (e.g., willingness to apply sanction/reward for academic achievement consistently and significantly) (3) and close monitoring.

I direct you to the work of Harvard economist Ronald Ferguson. He has his Ph.D. from M.I.T., so everything he says is right. ;)

English Professor writes:

"I don't think we have a recipe that says, "Take a child of two non-college educated parents, add primary education ingredient X, bake, and out comes a college-capable high school graduate." The mystery ingredient X has yet to be discovered."

During the 1960s and 1970s, the vast majority of college students came from families in which neither of the parents had gone to college. Before WWII, the number of college educated persons in the US was very small, and so the great expansion of the college population beginning in the 1950s had to come from non-college families. Most of the people I knew in undergraduate and graduate school were from working-class families. For most of us, our grandparents had come from somewhere in Europe (Ireland, Poland, Italy, Germany), and our parents had been born here. The key element was parental expectations. All of our parents simply took it for granted that their children would go to college. Chuck's research-based description matches my experience and that of my cohort in school.

The change, then, is a change in cultural expectations and family behaviors.

English Professor writes:

Marginal Revolution has linked to this post, and it is getting a lot of comments. At MR there is a strong contingent asserting that X=IQ.

They are also talking about the generally superior performance of Asians, no matter what the family's educational background might be. Asians often have the same sort of parental expectations (perhaps even higher ones) that I described for the Euro-ethnic communities of the 1950s and 1960s. It's a contemporary parallel circumstance.

George writes:

2006, Americans aged 55-59 collectively possessed more masters degrees, professional degrees and doctorates than Americans aged 30-34.

Yeah. They probably have more scars, too. Put another way, how many people lose degrees as they get older?

parviziyi writes:

I agree with the comment that ingredient X is parental expectations, close parental monitoring, and the parental disposition to sanction|reward studiousness significantly and permanently, explicitly and implicitly. It's parental values. Parental values is the same missing ingredient that explains why the bulk of today's students are not interested in studying engineering and science. Already more than enough millions are studying rubbishy subjects such as english literature, hegelian philosophy, social psychology, and economics, in my opinion. A topping-out or small decline in overall post-secondary education levels should be nothing to be bothered by, unless and until the percentage studying rubbishy curricula is reduced, I suggest.

By the way the commenter is correct who said that during the 1960s and 1970s the majority of college students came from families in which NEITHER parent attended college, but Arnold Kling was talking about post-graduate students, where a stronger relationship with parent education level was occurring.

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