Selection, Meritocracy, and Educational Quality

24 March 2009 at 2:08 pm 2 comments

| Dick Langlois |

We have all heard complaints about the decline in the quality of students over, say, the second half of the twentieth century. The usual interpretation is that this has to do with decline in the quality of schools, especially high schools, or in the curriculum delivered in those schools. I always like to point out to people (that is, to non-economists) that much of the perceived decline is likely a matter of demographic and selection effects. Access to secondary and higher education expanded tremendously after World War II, which changed the underlying distribution of abilities of students finishing high school and attending college. (This is also relevant to discussions of the quality of American college students versus Europeans or others — the fraction of students going on to college is higher in the U. S. than elsewhere, so comparing just the mean is misleading.) Education also became more meritocratic after the War, in that colleges and universities began to screen students by academic ability rather by other characteristics (like income).

I just ran across an interesting new paper by Lutz Hendricks and Todd Schoellman that analyzes these issues in a thorough and illuminating way. Here is the abstract:

Student Abilities During the Expansion of U.S. Education, 1950-2000

Since 1950, U.S. educational attainment has increased substantially. While the median student in 1950 dropped out of high school, the median student today attends some college. In an environment with ability heterogeneity and positive sorting between ability and school tenure, the expansion of education implies a decrease in the average ability of students conditional on school attainment. Using a calibrated model of school choice under ability heterogeneity, we investigate the quantitative impact of rising attainment on ability and measured wages. Our findings suggest that the decline in average ability depressed wages conditional on schooling by 31-58 percentage points. We also find that the entire rise in the college wage premium since 1950 can be attributed to the rising mean ability of college graduates relative to high school graduates.

This has a number of significant implications. As the authors point out, average ability has declined at all levels of schooling. This should color our interpretation of the much-touted fact that real wages haven’t increased much since 1960. At the same time, the wage gap between low and high levels of educational attainment has increased over time — because improved sorting has selected people of higher ability into college and selected people of lower ability out of college.

Entry filed under: - Langlois -, Education, Myths and Realities.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Rafe Champion  |  24 March 2009 at 3:38 pm

    Is anyone prepared to contest the claim that the quality of public schooling declined since WW2, as noted by Jacques Barzun who has been a close observer of education at all levels for much of the century? In the Preface to the 1983 reprint of “Teacher in America” he wrote:

    “To those who follow the news about education, the present state of American schools and colleges must seem vastly different from that described in this book. Thirty-five years have passed, true; but the normal drift of things will not account for the great chasm. The once proud and efficient public-school system of the United States, especially its unique free high school for all—has turned into a wasteland where violence and vice share the time with ignorance and idleness, besides serving as battleground for vested interests, social, political, and economic. The new product of that debased system, the functional illiterate, is numbered in millions, while various forms of deceit have become accented as inevitable—”social promotion” or for those who fail the “minimum competency” test; and most lately, “bilingual education,” by which the rudiments are supposedly taught in over ninety languages other than English. The old plan and purpose of teaching the young what they truly need to know survives only in the private sector, itself hard-pressed and shrinking in size.”

    “Meantime, colleges and universities have undergone a comparable devastation. The great postwar rush to college for a share in upward mobility and professional success was soon encouraged and enlarged by public money under the G.I. bills and the National Defense Education Act. Under this pressure higher education changed in quality and tone. The flood of students caused many once modest local colleges and deplorable teachers’ colleges to suddenly dub themselves universities and attempt what they were not fit for. State university systems threw out branches in cities already well provided with private, municipal, or denominational institutions; and new creations—junior colleges and community colleges—entered the competition for the student moneys and other grants coming out of the public purse. The purpose and manner of higher education were left behind.”

  • 2. Bogdan Enache  |  25 March 2009 at 11:59 pm

    In 1989, when communism fell, there were 164.000 college students in Romania. Total population was a little over 23 million people. In 2008, the number of students rose to 700.000, it quadrupled, while the total population declined to a little over 21 millions. (The biggest decline was in young people, so the discrepancy is even bigger but I don’t remeber exactly the numbers). Between 2004-2007, the highscool population declined by 10%, but the college population increased by 30%. In the mind of the ministry’s of education oficials this is great- college education has been extended and it should extend even more since Romania is still among the countries with the lowest ration of students per population in Europe. But the consequence of all growth in college population, plus a lot of dysfunctional problems in the education system (corruption etc etc) is what any college freshman and job interviewer in the country knows. – College diplomas don’t mean anything these days. The magic job question is “What work experience do you have?” No work experience? In case you get the job, don’t excepect more than the minimum wage. In 2003 (second year of college), when I started working full time the minimum wage for college graduates was ~$100 which almost paid the market rent (the most important cost for “provincial students”, since the studies are generally free, but for the rest most students are generally on their own); now it is $300 – still the market rent. I earned 100 for almost a year in 2003 with only 1 year of college; now – actually before the currency deppreciation – I get 10 times that amount. Most of my former colleges collegues however still get the minimum 300, or 400 maximum.

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