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Is a more-educated retail sales force worth the money?

Is the expense of going to college worth it? When you consider not only tuition and books, but also opportunity costs, the answer is sometimes “no, at least from a financial standpoint.”

The Atlanta Regional Council for Higher Education, naturally enough, is an advocate for spending on higher ed. It cites, among other things, salary premiums enjoyed by college graduates over similarly situated people without degrees.

So, for example, “marketing and sales managers” who have a degree earn on average 62 percent more than managers without a degree.

But we also read that the wage premium exists in other fields: 84 percent for cashiers, 63 percent for cooks, 38 percent for auto mechanics, 34 percent for cops, and 23 percent for postal service mail carriers.

Now, I’ve run a cash register before, and I have to ask a few questions. Is having a college degree a prerequisite to working as a cashier? Does having a college degree make a cashier 84 percent more productive? Given the low wages of cashiers and the high costs of going to college, has going to college paid off, financially, for the cashier? Has it paid off for the taxpayers, who in various forms subsidize college education? I could ask similar questions of cooks, auto mechanics, and so forth.

Now let me interject a few qualifications. First of all, many people would benefit from some sort of post-secondary education. It just doesn’t have to be what we have historically called a “four-year degree.” For example, automobiles are pretty sophisticated devices, so perhaps a would-be mechanic ought to pursue a technical (“two year”) degree or a certificate from a community or technical college. A second qualification is that often–though not always–when a college graduate works as a cashier, cook, or what have you, it’s a temporary situation. In a down economy, you take whatever you can get. (In my case, my first post-college job involved asking strangers, “would you like fries with that?”) And finally, there are certainly non-financial benefits to the college experience. Being introduced to, say, classic debates in philosophy, is good for the mind and even the spirit, if not necessarily the wallet.

But neither students and their families nor taxpayers can ignore the wallet. The inflation rate of tuition consistently and significantly outpaces that of the economy as a whole. College graduates–and even those who leave college without a degree–leave the campus with significant amounts of debt. The public fisc, meanwhile, faces ever-increasing pleas for more money from colleges and universities.

So while the “wage premium” argument has some appeal, it deserves some scrutiny. And–this is the topic for some significant reflection and analysis that goes beyond a single blog post–we ought to rethink the college experience and the role of government in it.

 

 

School Choice: Doesn’t Hurt, Often Helps

Breaking the chain between street address and the school a child attends–school choice–is not only moral, it works. Education Week recently ran a commentary from nine scholars who make that point. The nine, who include representatives from the American Enterprise Institute and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, say that in 20 years we have learned a lot about how to design choice programs, as well as how well school choice works. The article’s title reflects its content pretty well: “What research says about school choice.”

Studies about the effects of school choice–tax credits, vouchers, charter schools, and other options–have focused on three questions: Does choice benefit students who receive vouchers, tax credits, etc.? Do choice programs have an effect on schools as a whole (that is, what about the students who don’t participate)? Does it have a beneficial effect on the public purse?

The answer to the first question may be summed up as, “students who participate are not harmed, and in some cases they are helped.”

The answer to the second question is similar, though the evidence for voucher programs is stronger than it is for charter schools.

As to the third question, “the net impact of school choice on public finances is usually positive and has never been found to be negative.” (No surprise there; as far as I can tell, school choice programs always spend less in public money, on a per-pupil basis, than district schools.)

The authors rightly point out that our evidence on the effects of school choice are limited by the fact that school choice programs are very limited, both in size and in scope. School choice programs enroll well under 5 percent of all school-aged children. That means economies of scale or innovations that might come from a wider marketplace of education haven’t been seen.

They authors add that much public debate has focused on the demand side of education–how many students and which ones participate in school choice programs. The supply side of schooling, which is trapped in red tape and a 100-year-old mindset, can’t be ignored.

In short, school choice is an important part of the puzzle when it comes to “quality education,” however you define it. But it’s a part that, based on the evidence as well as normative reasoning, demands more attention.

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The authors include a helpful list of studies on the effects of school choice. I would paste it in here, but it’s much too long–a good problem to have!

 

Happy Digital Learning Day

Today is “digital learning day,” a celebration of the possibilities of using online tools to deliver education. Curiously, Minnesota is not one of the 39 states officially observing the day.

That’s too bad, when you consider the possibilities it has to offer students ways to get classes they might not otherwise be able to get, at a time that works for them, at a pace that works for them. See Mitch Pearlstein’s recent report on digital learning in Minnesota, as well as the resources at Digital Learning Now!

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