NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


July 31, 2009

More education has to be a good thing, right?  Education is like exercise or sleeping -- each of these is good for you. It is obvious that dedicating more attention to each of these is good.  While investing in each of these likely generates enormous benefits, at some point each additional unit invested generates fewer benefits than the one before it.  What if these so-called "diminishing returns" never set in for education? In a world of scarce time and resources, they must, albeit indirectly, says Michael Rizzo, lecturer in economics at the University of Rochester.

Data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) seems to indicate that the United States no longer is the world leader in the share of its population obtaining a college degree.  However, the percentage of Americans (29.4) aged 25 or older with a college degree has never been higher.  The United States is making substantial progress in educating its population at the postsecondary level. What is the problem?

Apparently, other countries are making progress at an even faster rate, says Rizzo:

  • U.S. improvement was only 15th best among 22 advanced countries whose group average increase was 75 percent since 1985, including Portugal, Austria, Spain, Italy and Ireland -- which have each doubled their college attainment rates.
  • But the college attainment rate in the United States was over 50 percent larger than in the next most educated country, Korea.
  • One reason for such dramatic differences is that the over-65 population in the United States is far more accomplished than their counterparts across the world.

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. Put another way, if merely leading the world in educational attainment is desirable, why not aim to have every American receive a college degree?

Source: Michael Rizzo, "Mission Not To Accomplish," Inside Higher Ed, July 28, 2009.

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